How and when we decide to eradicate hunger
Photo from the Double Up Food Bucks website
"49 million people in the U.S. — one in four children — don’t know where their next meal is coming from, despite our having the means to provide nutritious, affordable food for all Americans," starts the description for the new movie "A Place at the Table," which chronicles food insecurity in America. While we don't hear much about the complex issues around hunger and poverty in the mainstream news, the directors of "A Place at the Table" recently appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
In the interview the directors, Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, described the systematic de-funding of government programs beginning in the Reagan era, and the consequent explosion in the numbers of nonprofit and faith organizations attempting to feed impoverished people.
They explained the "bass-ackwardness" of using our taxes to subsidize industrial agriculture which contributes to both poverty and obesity by fostering low-wage jobs while making the cheapest calories the ones that are the worst for our health. The directors of the movie said they were starting a national campaign to change all of this.
Educating ourselves about national issues like hunger and poverty is crucial, but the enormity of the challenges can feel paralyzing. And there are so many simple (and innovative) ways to create the world as it should be, going on right here at home already.
For example, Food Gatherers, which "exists to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in our community," is in the midst of a capital campaign to expand their warehouse and fresh food storage capacity this year.
Vegetable growers and home gardeners of all stripes can participate in their Plant-a-Row program, which changes "random acts of gardening" into supplies of fresh food that Food Gatherers can count on. Anyone and any group can register to participate in growing extra food from the garden to donate (they suggest things like collards, cauliflower, cantaloup, carrots, potatoes, peppers and squash).
People with green and black thumbs alike can have a good time, eat fabulous food and support a great cause at Grillin', Food Gatherers' biggest annual fundraiser coming up June 9 at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor invites participation in the conversation catalyzed by Saru Jayaraman's book "Behind the Kitchen Door," on the "Treatment of Food Workers in the U.S." Taking place April 7, the church is hosting Michaela Goralski of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan (ROC-MI) to lead the discussion. They say, "Information about the book 'Behind the Kitchen Door' by Saru Jayaraman and upcoming book discussions will also be available."
Consider Washtenaw County Public Health Department's "Prescription for Health" Program, which won the Future of Public Health Award in 2012. Concentrate magazine calls it "an innovative 'prescription' program (that) introduces medicinal benefits of fresh produce to lower income Washtenaw County residents. Health professionals have found a way to get people to say 'yes' to fruits and vegetables when they otherwise might resort to something deep fried or otherwise full of empty calories."
Another phenomenally successful program is Double Up Food Bucks, which offers the health incentives of fresh produce to participants, and results in financial benefits for farmers. It works like this: "When a person eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) uses his or her SNAP Bridge Card to shop for food at a farmers' market, the amount of money that he or she spends is matched with Double Up Food Bucks bonus tokens." This year the program will be offered in more than 100 farmers markets across Michigan.
Ypsilanti’s Growing Hope has 20 days to meet its $20,000 Kickstarter goal so that it can do things like install free gardens for 20 low-income families and convert a pickup truck to run on used cooking oil.
These are just a few of the incredibly creative ideas out there, most being carried forward by increasingly over-committed nonprofit organizations and volunteers. While these programs all offer opportunities to contribute our time and our funds, the systemic reasons for poverty and hunger will not be solved by nonprofit organizations and faith communities.
We know the need and the ideas are there — now we need widespread and systemic policy changes that result in healthy individuals and healthy communities. Patty Cantrell makes an argument for "food innovation districts" and the benefits of "economic gardening" offered by healthy food systems, writing that "Food=jobs, food=health, and food=place."
One food innovation district is already happening in Detroit's Eastern Market, a model for the country, calling itself a "Healthy Metropolitan Food Hub." Detroit leads the country in developing strategies for food security in many ways. For example, Detroit's City Council recently approved the Detroit Food Ordinance - although it was overshadowed in the news by ongoing political shenanigans. This ordinance recognizes urban agriculture as a permitted activity in the city and defines activities like gardening, urban farming, aquaponics, and farm stands, and specifies standards for their uses.
Shortly after that, Ypsilanti's City Council also approved the Ypsilanti Food Ordinance. Sociologist Stefanie Stauffer, an Ypsilanti "local food crusader," says that the ordinance "legalizes edible landscaping, front-yard gardens, and gardening on vacant lots while making value-added processing easier in the city limits." And she notes "keep in mind as well that Urban Chickens & Urban Honeybees have been legal in Ypsi since 2009, so Ypsi has some allowances for urban livestock where Detroit does not."
Supposedly progressive Ann Arbor still has no food ordinance of its own on the docket. Perhaps it's something that the Washtenaw Food Policy Council, adopted last year as an official committee supervised by the County's Board of Commissioners, could work on.
Along with the spring planting, it's time to do a little "economic gardening" here. The County's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) is carrying out a study led by an "economic anthropologist" that expressly includes a survey of food businesses and saying the OCED "recognizes a need to focus more on local small business, cottage industry and non-venture capital funded entrepreneurship."
I can imagine the day when we all have a place at the table, when we've decided (because it is something we can decide) to eradicate hunger and its causes based in poverty. No one needs to go hungry in this country - there's already enough food. But it's going to take a lot more of us refusing to be complicit in the current system and holding our policy makers and political representatives accountable - because we get the kind of government and policies that we decide we want and we work toward. Food can equal jobs, and health and place - if we decide to make it so.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.