Bringing affordable nutrition to the nationâ€™s food deserts by Emily A. Dause
when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground … and Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (Exod. 16: 14-15). For 40 years, in the form of manna and quail, God provided the wandering Israelites with access to food that was not only satisfying but also nutritionally fortifying. Many Americans today, however, live in poor urban areas that lack access to affordable, nutritious food, particularly fresh produce. Known as “food deserts,” these areas are defined as census tracts where 20 percent of residents qualify as low-income and at least 33 percent of the population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. (This definition is for urban areas, which account for approximately 82 percent of food deserts. In a rural area, food deserts include areas where 33 percent of the population lives more than 10 miles from a large grocery store). This definition was developed by the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which is a coalition of several government agencies, including the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS). According to the 2009 ERS Report to Congress on Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food, approximately 11.5 million people (4.1 percent of the US population) are low-income, live in low-income areas, and live more than a mile from a large grocery store. To view the locations of US food deserts, visit ERS. USDA.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator.aspx. One question surfaced repeatedly in the process of researching this article: If people living in “food deserts” do not see the lack of access to fresh food as a problem, is it a problem? After all, most urban residents of low-income areas list several other priority issues—crime, education, unemployment, etc.—before mentioning lack of access to fresh fruits or vegetables, if they mention it at all. Keeping in mind that access to nutritious food is far from the only, much less the most devastating, injustice in our cities, we need to decide whether we believe that (1) nutritious food is a luxury that we can do without or (2) that nutritious food is essential to health and therefore a basic human right. According to the above-mentioned ERS report, diets lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fresh meat and dairy products can contribute to serious health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. This suggests that access to healthy food, like access to healthcare and education, is indeed a justice issue. In Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (IVP, 2013), Rachel Marie Stone asserts that feeding the hungry is not a means to the end of evangelization. Instead, our following Christ’s example of addressing the physical needs of the poor, as when he instructed his disciples to distribute loaves and fishes among the crowd, is inseparable from the good news of the gospel. As Stone explains, “Jesus feeds the multitudes physical bread before telling them that he is the Bread of Life … a gospel that isn’t good news for the people who are poor isn’t the gospel.” But seeking food justice is a complex issue. So many things factor into the problem, especially in urban deserts—from zoning laws and lack of space to high levels of racial segregation and income inequality. Even when grocery stores are present, people in the lowest income brackets often lack access to a vehicle and/or cost-effective public transportation. When nutritious foods are available at smaller neighborhood stores, the higher prices are often prohibitive. To
complicate things further, many urban areas have abundant access to fast food restaurants. (Donald Rose of Tulane University coined the term “food swamp” to describe these areas where affordable, nutritious food is not available, High in sugar and sodium, processed foods (above) are readily available at corner stores in low-income urban but high-calorie, neighborhoods, while healthy fresh produce (below) is scarce. low-nutrient food is readily available at low cost.) The availability of affordable, nutritious food does not guarantee that those most affected will take advantage of the opportunity, whether due to preference or a lack of knowledge about nutrition and/or how to prepare fresh foods. The problem of food access has no single, overarching solution. However, there are people and organizations striving towards justice in food deserts. Having acknowledged the various factors at play, this article attempts to focus on the heart of the matter—the lack of nutritious options in low-income areas. What follows are descriptions of common and creative approaches ranging from individuals to large-scale organizations. You will also find a list of straightforward ideas for personal involvement. Hopefully, one of these stories or ideas will connect with you and invite you into Christ’s call to share the gospel in both word and food. Efforts to increase access to fresh foods typically fall into three categories: (1) growing produce within the food deserts (urban farms); (2) bringing fresh foods into cities to sell at affordable prices (farmers’ markets, sliding-scale community supported agriculture [CSA] shares, pop-up markets); and (3) donating and/or redistributing nutritious foods to charitable organizations and individu-
als living in food deserts. To provide a variety of models, the organizations described below include both local and regional examples. See the sidebar list of nationally recognized organizations on page 34 for information about larger organizations and the resources they offer. Growing produce in food deserts The urban farm movement cuts to the core of food access by establishing farms and gardens within the cities themselves. In addition to making fresh foods available, benefits of this approach include the opportunity for residents to learn about growing their own food and to make a personal connection to the food they eat. Urban gardens also open doors for education about nutrition and food preparation. A multitude of existing urban and community farms can serve as models for new programs. One of the best-known examples is Growing Power (GrowingPower.org), which serves cities in Wisconsin and Illinois. Part of the organization’s mission is to assist new urban farmers in getting started. Another model is the Detroit Earthworks Urban Farm (cskDetroit.org/EWG), which was showcased in the July/August 2011 issue of PRISM. Established in 1997, well before the term “food desert” was widely used, Earthworks is a time-tested example of a network of people working to compensate for the lack of fresh produce in their city. The nonprofit Joshua Farm (JoshuaFarm.wordpress.com) was launched in 2006 on land leased from the school district in Harrisburg, Pa., with a founding purpose of providing employment for inner-city youth. It sells its produce at market stands and through its CSA program, but motivating the city’s lowincome residents to purchase this produce is a complex task, according to farm manager Kirsten Reinford. One way is by offering “working shares,” in which individuals or families commit to volunteer at the farm for a certain number of hours in exchange for produce. Another way is by accepting SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) benefits and other government program vouchers. The farm is also hoping to implement a sliding scale at a future farm stand. Bringing in nutritious food at affordable prices When it is even possible to bring an actual supermarket to a food desert, it is at best a lengthy and complicated task. As such, many food justice activists connect with local farms that agree to bring their produce into the city. Farm stands and farmers’ markets are a common urban venue for selling local produce. The farmers’ markets of Santa Monica, Calif., have been offering quality food to city residents since 1981. Inspired by the efforts of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, officials of Santa Monica established a network of farmers’ markets to bring quality farmers into the city to sell their produce directly to
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What you can do: Simple, practical ways to help bring fresh foods to food deserts ØRedistribute food waste. Most, if not all, grocery stores have produce and other fresh food that is either blemished or unfit for typical customer purchase. Grocery stores simply throw these items away. Ask your local stores to set aside these items for you to pick up. You will need to have proof that the items will be given to nonprofit organizations or have established yourself as a nonprofit. You will also need to find nonprofits that accept perishable items for distribution. (See “Waste Not, Want Not” on page 31.) ØDonate produce. If you have a personal garden, take your leftovers to a local food bank or charity that accepts perishable items. You could also expand your garden or invite neighbors to take part in a community growing effort. (Connect with Plant a Row for the Hungry at GardenWriters.org for more information.) If you live in an area with farms or farmers’ markets, ask for permission to “glean” items left in the fields. ØConnect with a local organization. Make contact with an organization in your area that works with food security. If you are unaware of any near you, check the national websites for suggestions. (See sidebar on page 34.) ØOrganize your church. Churches as institutions can be the basis for a church garden, a food-buying club, or a community kitchen that can serve and connect church members with the community in which they live.
consumers. The city now sponsors four grower-only markets in different areas of the city, open year-round in all weather. All of the markets accept CalFresh (SNAP) benefits, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) vouchers, and government vouchers for low-income senior citizens. Produce from outside a city can also be sold through a sliding-scale, institution-based, produce-buying club. Mosaic Church of Washington, DC, recently began hosting a specific kind of produce-buying club called a “Fresh Stop.” Mosaic Church partners in this endeavor with the Quixote Center (Quixote. org/Fresh-Stops), an interfaith activist organization founded in the tradition of Catholic social justice. The Fresh Stop’s mission is to make produce available to low-income families. Mosaic Church purchases wholesale produce directly from local organic farms. This transaction is mutually beneficial for the farmers, as it gives them a guaranteed outlet for their produce. To cut down on in-house costs, Mosaic volunteers sort, bag, and bunch the produce. Members of the club purchase equal shares ranging from $12 to $30 depending on their income level. Jeremiah John, coordinator of Mosaic’s
Nationally recognized organizations working to bring justice to food deserts ØWhyHunger (WhyHunger.org) was founded in 1975 as World Hunger Year. Since then, the organization has grown to be the leading supporter of grassroots hunger initiatives. Their website provides a Food Security Learning Center, with a section devoted to food deserts. You can also search their Grassroots Action Network and the database of USDA Community Food Project grantees. Their National Hunger Hotline provides emergency food relief and assists struggling individuals and families to access government benefits, including SNAP and WIC. ØThe Food Trust (TheFoodTrust.org) was founded in Philadelphia in 1992. Although focused on Philadelphia, the organization has become a national model for any city lacking access to nutritious food. Their programs include the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which provides materials and training to small corner stores about marketing and selling healthy products; the Supermarket Campaign, which works to bring grocery stores to areas that lack them; and inner-city farmers’ markets that accept government assistance vouchers. ØJust Food (JustFood.org) has been working since 1995 in New York City, the most populated US city, to connect communities and local farms and bring fresh food to all of the city’s neighborhoods. The group hosts an annual conference to discuss a variety of food issues, including mobilization of justice efforts. ØHealthy Corner Stores Network (HealthyCornerStores.org), led by three national organizations, provides information about community programs across the country that are working towards providing healthy and affordable food at existing corner stores. Their website includes resources for starting healthy food initiatives as well as contact information for program consultants. ØMarket Makeovers (MarketMakeovers.org) is a website led by the privately funded Healthy Eating Active Communities (HEAC) and Public Matters (a group of media professionals and educators). It showcases the before, during, and after phases of planning and implementing a “makeover” of stores in the South Los Angeles food desert. Emphasizing youth involvement, the site creatively presents straightforward information about their model by featuring involved youth in YouTube videos.
Fresh Stop program, sees the sliding scale as an expression of scriptural hospitality and the eucharistic truth that everyone is equal at the Communion table. John believes that participation in a eucharistic alternative economy can spiritually form individuals towards the practice of caring for one’s neighbor and caring for God’s creation. In collaboration with New Roots in Kentucky, the program that pioneered the Fresh Stop model, John is currently chronicling Fresh Stop’s procedures to serve as a model for others. Pop-up markets are a particularly unique way to bring fresh food into the cities. Essentially a mobile grocery store, these “markets on wheels” are trucks or buses filled with perishable products from local grocery stores. Freshmobile (MarketonWheels.com) in Madison, Wisc., is an example of one successful initiative. A nonprofit started by a local grocery store owner, the Freshmobile visits eight of Madison’s produce-lacking neighborhoods on a weekly basis. The mobile accepts WIC and SNAP benefits. Donating and redistributing fresh foods Although food banks provide valuable nourishment to people in need, most are equipped to accept, store, and distribute only nonperishables. A handful of food banks, such as the Southern Arizona Community Food Bank (CommunityFoodBank.com) based in Tuscon, Ariz., have established their own farms. Others will accept produce from farmers and gardeners through organizations like Plant a Row for the Hungry (GardenWriters.org). Marvin Ford of Washington, DC, came up with a creative approach, ingenious in its simplicity. He discovered that farmers and stores alike are forced to waste perfectly good produce and other fresh food they cannot sell because of harmless blemishes. In response, Ford founded the nonprofit Out of the Box and partnered with a Whole Foods store. Several times a week, he picks up
unwanted produce and breads and, transporting the items in his own car, redistributes them to organizations like Martha’s Table, DC Central Kitchen, Bread for the City, and women’s shelters. When possible, he also brings portions to individuals he knows are in need. Marvin especially enjoys the fact that the food he brings is truly good for the recipients—not only nutritious, but also natural and high quality—the same food that he eats. There is no one right way to improve food access, just as there is no typical story of those doing good work in food deserts. None of the people interviewed for this article consciously set out to “combat” the food deserts issue. Kirsten Reinford of Joshua Farm simply wanted to garden in her urban neighborhood, found an unused field owned by a school district, and happened to cross paths with a nonprofit focused on employment of at-risk youth. Marvin Ford of Out of the Box was looking for apples to juice and realized just how much perfectly good produce is discarded because of harmless imperfections while so many go without. Jeremy John of Fresh Stop experienced the equalizing nature of sharing food while participating in an Occupy movement. Regardless of how we come to the issue of food justice, our calling as believers to feed the hungry is the same. Perhaps Marvin Ford summed it up best. When asked how his faith drives his commitment to redistributing fresh foods, he explained that he simply asks himself, “Am I my brother’s keeper? And the answer to that is yes.”
Emily A. Dause is a full-time public school teacher and an emerging freelance writer. She hopes to use her writing to challenge and encourage believers and educators as they engage with the world around them. Check out her blog at sliversofhope.blogspot.com.
All images here courtesy of DIVEthefilm.com
Waste Not, Want Not
American anomaly. We lament the disappearance of Twinkies, but we also diet and obsess over whether a particular food is “healthy” or not. But whether we’re dieting or indulging, one thing is clear: We don’t value food the way it deserves to be valued. The great distance between the farm and our kitchen table, our disconnection from the soil that requires tending and the fresh products that require harvesting—these enable our unhealthy lack of appreciation for the food that sustains us. We’re aware that somewhere in the world children’s bellies swell with hunger and people die of starvation, but we perceive these to be far-off places and situations we can do nothing about. One result of this dysfunctional relationship with food is the staggering amount of food that is wasted every day. As much as 40 percent of all food produced in the US—approximately 100 billion pounds of food each year—goes uneaten and rots in landfills. Each year in Europe and the US almost 2,000 pounds of food are produced for each person, but over 600 of those are discarded between the farm and the consumer’s table. In 2010 alone, Americans wasted close to 34 million tons of food, enough to fill the Empire State Building 91 times. Two billion people could be fed with the amount that this nation alone throws away each year. On an individual basis, the average American consumer wastes 10 times the amount of a person living in Southeast Asia and 50 percent more than Americans did just 40 years ago. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the food wasted by consumers in
The shocking reality of food waste in the industrialized world by Halee Gray Scott
he history of my relationship with food reads like a bad romance. There are times I’ve adored it, like when our family would gather around my great-grandmother’s table weighted down with heaping mounds of creamy mashed potatoes, roasted corn on the cob, and platters of Southern-fried chicken or when I encountered the strawberry-stuffed crepes served up at Jean-Philippe Patisserie in the lobby of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nev. But most of the time, food has been the enemy, my relationship with it warped because of an eating disorder that stretched across the span of a whole decade—from the painful adolescent years of junior high to my soul-searching early 20s. Though my experience is admittedly extreme, it’s by no means an
Two billion people could be fed with the amount that this nation alone throws away each year. industrialized countries (222 million tons) is almost equal to the total net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons). Meanwhile, food shortage isn’t just a problem for those who live in far-off places. In the US, more than one out of five children—almost 17 million children under the age of 18—live with food insecurity every day. This means they’re not sure where their next meal will come from and often have to skip meals or go a day without eating. High unemployment since the 2008-2009 recession has driven up enrollment in SNAP (food stamps), bringing it to almost 48 million people by the end of last year. In a report issued by the Department of Agriculture, 97 percent of those surveyed said that they ate less or skipped a meal since the recession, and 91 percent said they ran short of food often throughout the year. Food waste isn’t just an issue of distribution in which some have food in abundance while others have little; it’s also an environmental issue. Getting food to consumers makes up 10 percent of the US enDIVE! is a documentary by Jeremy Seifert that reveals how America ergy budget and uses throws away billions of pounds of 50 percent of our land food a year. Follow him and his friends and 80 percent of as they “dumpster dive” in the back freshwater consumed alleys and gated garbage receptacles in the US. This means of Los Angeles supermarkets. In the process, they uncover thousands of that 40 percent of all dollars’ worth of good food — as those resources are well as the ugly fact that grocery wasted, in addition to stores know they are wasting and the waste in energy most refuse to do anything about and the large amounts it. A call to action to help distribute perfectly good food that will otherwise of unnecessary chemigo into the dumpster. Learn more at cals released into the DIVEthefilm.com. environment. Food waste accounts for 25 percent of freshwater
Grocery stores dispose of tons of fresh food that is blemished or close to expiration date but still perfectly edible.
consumption and more than 300 million barrels of oil each year. Further, decomposing food waste emits methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gasses that some believe contribute to climate change. Methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the amount emitted from food waste rotting in landfills accounts for 25 percent of US methane emissions. Food waste is a deeply moral and theological problem. At least on the consumer level and possibly even on the corporate level, food waste is born of the sin of gluttony. Back when I was a little girl, my grandparents would take me to the Mexi-Teria, a restaurant that served up delicious Tex-Mex food, cafeteria-style. As we would move past the selections, I would always pick out more than I could eat. As he paid the bill, my grandpa would always say, “Halee, your eyes are bigger than your stomach!” He was right—I never finished all my food. That, in a nutshell, is what’s happening in homes across the country—we buy far more—40 percent more—than we can possibly eat. Since we purchase the food, the demand is there, so production continues at those levels. Christians can and should model good stewardship of our resources by analyzing the food they actually eat and making purchases consistent with their level of consumption. There are ways to go even further, such as contacting your local grocer to see what’s being done with leftover food. Food pantries can be stocked with the overabundance of food from individual homes, local restaurants, and grocery stores. The end of food waste begins with a theologically accurate perception of the value of food and what God intended it to be. We’ve got to lay aside our inaccurate ideas about food—food as the enemy, food as an idol—and embrace it thankfully as a God-given source of energy from which to live well. (Editor’s note: Go to PRISMmagazine.org/endnotes to view sources for statistics cited here.)
Halee Gray Scott is an author, scholar, and researcher. Her research and teaching focuses on theology, spiritual formation, and leadership. Her book, Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women, is due out next year from Zondervan.