If you think choosing the best food for yourself and your family is tough, try being poor. Put aside any thoughts you might have in your head about why the poor are poor and all the things you think they should be doing to better their situation, and just think for a minute about the day to day reality of getting food on your table if you live where most poor people live.
You will probably picture yourself in a city, on a block identical to the blocks around it, in apartment housing, a project or a single family home in need of repairs. There has not been a grocery store in your neighborhood in twenty years or more – the stores followed those with money when they moved to the suburbs in the 1970s. What you’ve got are liquor stores and corner stores, each stocked about as well as a suburban gas station might be with a few quarts of milk, some lunch meat and a selection of canned items and breakfast cereals, and an aisle of candy as long as the food aisle. Within a few blocks is a bus stop, but it’s not a line where a bus comes by every ten minutes, it comes once an hour. You are not likely to have a car, but maybe someone you know does. When it comes time to buy groceries, you can ride the bus (or more likely a couple of buses) to a real grocery store, or ride the metro, but either way, you can only buy what you can carry back yourself. All together, the trip may take you 3 or 4 hours. And you’re lucky to have brought back food for a week. And because American food policy rewards the overproduction of corn, the affordable things you can bring home are killing you, and the fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive to buy enough to keep your family full for a week.
When the mac and cheese and cheerios and frozen pizzas are gone, and it’s not payday yet, you may avail yourself of food from the corner store, but you will pay anywhere from 40 – 100% more for the same items as you would at a grocery store. If you can’t buy there, you can find a food bank that will give you donated food to get you through. Again, not fresh foods, but canned foods and things others didn’t want. For a treat, a cheap fast food dinner – you’ve seen the commercials: feed a family of five for $20. There will be more fast food restaurants in your neighborhood than there are corner stores or schools.
If you’re elderly, it’s even harder to get out. And if you’re a child, you’re very likely to live a shorter life than your parents, and if you have four friends, two of you will have diabetes before you’re 20.
In Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, Mark Winne, took me through his years of work first understanding and mapping the food deserts in Hartford, Connecticut, and in his innovative and inspiring work to create ways of bringing good food back to these neighborhoods, and opened my eyes to the realities of food injustice in America. And it holds true for the rural poor as much as for those in cities. Food access follows wealth – and if you live outside the boundaries of where those with wealth congregate, you will have to settle for the dregs.
More unsettling to me than learning of the challenges those in poverty face getting food, was the challenge they face gaining any voice in their situation. Winne observes, “Pricing and business decisions are market driven. If a person doesn’t have money, he or she doesn’t participate in the market. If a person doesn’t have power, he or she doesn’t participate in policymaking, which effectively is the only way to make the market work for everyone.”
Winne went on to explain how the projects he and others brought to Hartford through the establishment of the Hartford Food Systems succeeded in restoring food access to the most blighted areas of his city. As executive director of HFS for 23 years, Winne lead in the creation of farmers markets, a 25-acre community supported agriculture farm, a food bank, a neighborhood supermarket, and programs allowing farmers markets to accept food stamps – now a national program. Throughout this work, Winne came to realize the need for change at the policy level and the dearth of people willing to invest in policy work or to push our elected officials to advocate for needed changes in policy.
Why change policy? Winne makes the compelling case that as Hartford Food Systems made headway in restoring food access to the city’s poor, they time and time again ran into laws that hindered efforts to put their solutions to work or take those solutions to scale. Winne found himself before city council and ultimately in the halls and offices of the Connecticut legislature, explaining problems and offering solutions – and often, forging partnerships - that lawmakers recognized as valuable and had the power to implement.
Three things are necessary to change our food system and close the food gap: projects, partners, and policy. Without these “three Ps” synchronized and fully engaged, we will never be able to develop innovation, know-how, or resources necessary to reach those goals.
… It is policy that will ‘make the right…prevalent’. Getting our heads above our projects, or even above our own supper plates, is necessary to see the opportunity that public policy affords. We cannot expect change to occur unless we can replicate everywhere the good work that is going on in specific parts of the country, and to do that requires the broad shoulders of the government to push with us at the same time.”
As I dish up my own plate of grass-fed organic beef, locally-grown tomatoes and Brussels sprouts, and drink craft brews and farm-fresh milk, I am haunted by Winne’s challenge to lift my head above my own plate, and I am compelled to find my place in making changes to this system.