There is no silver-bullet solution to food insecurity, and each community needs a tailored fix. The most effective strategies tend to be those that combine a few solutions in one.
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In 2011, Michelle Obama said during a speech in Philadelphia—a sort of poster child for both food deserts and how to address them—that various programs rolled out by the Obama Administration, most notably the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), were targeting an ambitious goal. “We want to end food deserts in this country in seven years,” she said, to great applause. While the HFFI has certainly delivered some successes, and certainly increased the number of full-service grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, no one would claim that it has solved food insecurity in the U.S. Still, the initiative, and in particular the former First Lady’s focus on the topic, did help raise awareness around the issue, which has given rise to a variety of proposed solutions both public and private. These range from macro solutions at the federal level on down to micro solutions at the neighborhood level:
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative
Launched by the Obama Administration in 2010, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative was intended to finance new grocery stores in food deserts and equip existing ones with a greater variety of healthy options. The current administration has proposed eliminating the grants that fund the HFFI. A newly introduced bipartisan bill in Congress would replace HFFI with a system of tax credits and grants for businesses and nonprofits who serve low-income and low-access urban and rural areas. But it’s not just funding that’s at issue, it’s also the approach of HFFI. Talk to anyone who has worked on the front lines of the American hunger problem, and they’ll tell you the same thing: The solution most likely isn’t just sticking a full-service grocery store in every community. “When you talk about a ‘food desert’ the implied problem is that there isn’t a full-service grocery store, and therefore the implied solution is to bring in a full-service grocery store,” says Dr. Hilary Seligman, a national expert on food insecurity and health, and founder of the EatSF healthy foods voucher program. “When these grocery stores fail to demonstrate a meaningful impact on dietary intake in the community, the conclusion that can be drawn is that low-income populations don’t want to eat well. That is not the correct conclusion, and really what we have to acknowledge is that food deserts are a symptom of a much larger problem in our food system that has created an environment where there is a glut of calories out there and they are hugely inexpensive, but our nutrients are really, really expensive.”
Seligman says that means solutions to food insecurity, then, can’t be implemented in isolation, and that there likely is no blanket, one-size-fits all solution. In that sense, it’s good for solutions to be designed and implemented by state and local government, but they need federal support in order to pull it off.
SNAP: The Good News and the Bad News
There are several suggestions for “updating” SNAP in the Farm Bill currently making its way through Congress. Many of them are bad news for those who rely on the program: Republicans, as they are prone to do, would like to see work requirements attached to SNAP, which many have pointed out would be impossible to fulfill for some (those with disabilities that preclude working, for example, or single mothers who can no more afford childcare than they can afford to keep their refrigerators full). There has also been talk of imposing work requirements for urban, but not rural SNAP recipients, which has so many clear racial overtones it’s hard to even call it a dog whistle.
Then there’s the much-criticized “box” program, which has been largely described as paternalistic, debasing, and potentially harmful to the health of those on the program. Seligman notes that pushing SNAP recipients toward healthier food options would be great, but that providing a box of mostly canned and dried items doesn’t really deliver that. Besides, she points out: “Yes, SNAP recipients generally have an unhealthy diet, but on average their diet is no less healthy than the average American diet.”
The primary reason SNAP recipients’ diets tend to be nutrient-poor, in fact, is that SNAP benefits generally aren’t enough to actually keep people from hunger. “Now, the government will point out that the S in SNAP is for supplemental, and that people on the program are supposed to be using it to supplement what they can buy with their own money,” explains Michelle Marshall, managing director of community health and nutrition for Feeding America. In most cases, though, people on the program are having to balance competing demands for their limited incomes: rent, water, utilities, transportation, and food. Marshall says that in some of her organization’s research, they’ve seen a spike in diabetes-related ER visits at the end of the month, which happens to also be when most people’s money and SNAP benefits run out. “So they wind up either not eating at all, or eating something that is calorically dense but high in sugar or carbohydrates, “she says.
The sliver of a silver lining here is that the USDA did recently launch a pilot program allowing seven food retailers to accept SNAP benefits online. If fully implemented, the program would be an intriguing alternative to building new supermarkets—it would eliminate the transportation and time costs of getting to a store, and would open up a wide range of food options to program participants. The ability to save time by shopping online using SNAP benefits would predominantly benefit women, who are disproportionately tasked with food shopping and preparation.
The USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program is a local-state-federal partnership that provides incentives to SNAP participants to increase healthy purchases. This innovative nutrition incentive program connects low-income consumers with farmers market purveyors of locally- or regionally-produced fruits and vegetables.
For instance, in Flint, MI, FINI-funded Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program provides SNAP beneficiaries with the ability to receive two dollars worth of fresh, Michigan-grown produce for every dollar spent. The program also provides nutritional education programs to new mothers to develop awareness about why optimal nutrition is critical in the fight against lead poisoning and how to ensure their children get the nutrients they need to prevent the absorption of lead in their bodies.
Ethnic Markets and Convenience Stores
Many ethnic markets and convenience stores accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards used by SNAP beneficiaries. This helps the millions of Americans who live in neighborhoods where the nearest grocery store is sometimes miles away and who consequently rely on small markets and convenience stores that are within walking distance. Unfortunately, many small retailers, including corner liquor stores, meet only the bare minimum requirements of eligibility for accepting EBT cards. This often entails placing a small basket of suspicious-looking fruit next to the register and stocking milk, eggs, and protein in the form of hot dogs in a small corner of the refrigerated section. In stores like these, it may be easier to find a bag of potato chips than a head of broccoli. Tax incentives and community grants could be used to leverage the expansive network of neighborhood convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods to offer a wider selection of fresh and nutritious foods. Pascale Jossart-Marcelli of Director of San Diego State University Urban Studies Program believes, “If state and local governments could make a push to helping local businesses that are already there as opposed to trying to attract a big retailer coming from the outside, that would be a more effective solution for the community and it would not just in terms of improving food access but also perhaps creating jobs and opportunities for income.”
Food Is Medicine Coalition (FIMC)
The FIMC is a volunteer association of nonprofit, medically-tailored and nutrition services (FNS) providers from across the country. The FIMC’s purpose is to advance public policy that supports access to food and nutrition services for people with severe and/or chronic illnesses. The FIMC promotes research on the efficacy of food and nutrition services on health outcomes and cost of care and sharing best practices in the provision of medically-tailored meals of nutrition education and counseling.
Last year, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill appropriating $2 million for food-as-medicine programs. The first such program is now underway in the state. Project Open Hand, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in collaboration with prevention-focused integrated health benefits network Solera, and health care centers throughout California, is operating a pilot program that provides some Medicaid patients (currently those with congenital heart failure, approximately 24,000 people) with 12 weeks’ worth of prepared, nutritional meals upon discharge from the hospital, as well as nutrition education and a transition plan for shopping and cooking their own healthy meals once their outpatient plan ends.
Vertical farming uses hydroponics–a combination of LED lights and purified water–to manufacture fresh produce indoors. Advanced sensors gather information that is then sent to a computer system where vertical farmers analyze the data and make necessary water and light adjustments. Plants can be grown year round, and are chemical and pesticide free. As the technology required to do vertical farming, or “indoor agriculture” as it’s sometimes called, has advanced in recent years, the cost of the equipment has dropped, enabling the production of fresh produce in cities throughout the country where such a thing would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive 10 years ago.
Feeding America reports that 29 of its 200 members operate vertical food farms and distribute that produce to food insecure and low-income clients, especially during the winter months when local sources of fresh produce can be scarce. For some nonprofits, cost can be a barrier to indoor farms. However, The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma recently purchased and installed a $140,000 system by securing a grant from a private foundation. Public partnerships, tax credits, and grants are other possible sources of funding. There are concerns in the organic farming community, however, about potentially negative unforeseen consequences of moving farming away from sun and soil.
The cooperative movement often frames itself as an effort to regain local control over key community resources, food being one such resource. Food co-ops come in different flavors. There are those designed to meet a community’s desire for organic and natural food, and there are those co-ops that are designed to address food desert situations. Food co-ops in the first category look to find ways to offer more affordable food to nearby low-income community members. Whereas food co-ops in the second category, whose mission is to provide a full service grocery store in a low-income area, try to anchor the ownership of the co-op in the low-income community that needs one. A store owned by community members is also likely to be more concerned with sustainability than maximizing profit.
Community Supported Agriculture is a membership program that has been around for some time. CSAs allow city residents to have direct access to high quality, fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers. What is new is that many CSAs now accept food stamps, offer sliding scale fees, and provide scholarship shares, tweeks that are specifically aimed at addressing the needs of the food insecure.
Urban gardening is a mishmash of approaches to growing and raising food in densely populated urban centers. Depending on the community, techniques include backyard plots, community gardening in city parks, guerrilla gardening on vacant lots, indoor hanging gardens, rooftop growing, vertical gardens and more. The goal of urban gardens is to boost access to healthy food in low-income areas while encouraging greater community engagement by bringing residents together to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables on individual plots of land.
California recently implemented an innovative tax policy that incentivizes property owners to convert unoccupied land into into urban gardens. In exchange, the state reduces the assessed value of the property, lowering the owner’s property taxes.
Companies and nonprofits operating in a handful of cities have applied this approach as well, creating a sort of distributed urban agriculture system in which they aggregate small plots of land (under-utilized portions of people’s backyards, for example) to generate enough produce to donate to local food banks plus sell to restaurants and at farmers’ markets.
Another innovative approach, Swale, is a floating food forest built atop a barge that travels to piers in New York City, offering educational programming and welcoming visitors to harvest herbs, fruits and vegetables for free.
Crowdfunding–or raising money for community programs via digital and social media platforms–offers the potential of addressing food insecurity on a grassroots level. For instance, crowdfunding and micro-loans are a proven way to support women in ventures such as day-care and meal co-ops.
The environmental non-profit Re:Vision raised nearly $60,000 via crowdfunding to address a food desert in Denver’s Westwood community by building a local food co-op in Denver’s Westwood community. Unlike chain supermarkets, the Westwood Food Cooperative keeps profits in the community.
Perhaps the trendiest and most innovative approach to solving food insecurity is agrihoods. These are housing developments that, instead of being built around a tennis club or golf course, are built around a farm. Agrihoods often use the sweat-equity of residents to create a healthier, more sustainable food system for the entire community.
The Cannery, a mixed-use housing development in Davis, CA bills itself as “California’s first farm-to-table new home community.” Along with walking trails, swimming pool and planned amphitheater and dog park, the Cannery has working farmland on the premises.
If someone has never been exposed to fresh food and doesn’t know what to do with it, providing fresh, nutritious food is not enough. In fact, a recent study suggests that opening new supermarkets has little impact on eating habits of people in low-income neighborhoods. Even when residents do buy groceries from the new supermarkets, they buy products of the same low nutritional value. This realization has prompted co-ops and food banks and other nonprofits to include cooking instruction in their wrap-around services. Cooking and nutrition classes not only demystify fresh food they also serve to raise awareness about the deleterious side effects of processed and snack foods.
Food insecurity–and the hunger that arises because of it—is an all-consuming condition that leaves those affected by it with little energy leftover for anything else. If you’ve ever been poor, then you know what it’s like to subsist from day to day. You know what it’s like to walk the aisles of a grocery store holding numbers in your head, constantly remembering the pre- and post-tax prices for the items in your basket. You know what it’s like to serve a half a bagel for dinner then put your children to bed before their hunger hits. And you know just how tiring it is to live this way.
If food insecurity is to be eradicated, certain basic physiological needs must first be met, as Maslow demonstrated with his “hierarchy of needs” theory. In poor societies, it may not be possible to meet those needs for everyone, and people will die of starvation and malnutrition. In rich societies, such as the United States, it is not a matter of can we meet the basic needs of the poorest in our society, but will we?
Listen to the latest episode of The Fifty One. In our first season, we worked with local reporters across the country to explore food access in their communities. You can subscribe and listen to the full season on all platforms including Stitcher, Apple, and Google Play.
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