Durham, Connecting the Dots

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I spent last summer in the Durham Urban Innovation Center’s offices, researching the opportunities and gaps of Durham, NC’s food system. I also searched for movements across the country that demonstrated an organized, informed, and action-based effort for food system localization. With this research, I began to create a food strategy for the city.

The strategy includes possible challenges, solutions, metrics, impact, and next steps. However, what I found most striking was the number of small movements happening all around the city.

For example, we have SEEDS, an urban sanctuary with a community garden. They are dedicated to teaching and promoting a love and respect for land, food, and agriculture. One of their programs is Durham Inner-City Gardeners, which empowers Durham youth through leadership in urban farming.

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Inter-faith Food Shuttle leads the anti-hunger movement in Durham through their innovative model. They recover food from businesses, run a mobile market, and provide nutrition education and training for urban agriculture and culinary jobs. They are flexible and connected. Whatever the community needs, they aim to provide it.

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We even have a local food hub, called Eastern Carolina Organics. Immensely useful for a local food system, ECO links farmers with consumers and supplies important tools and storage. They support organic farmers by gathering diverse harvests and making the supply stronger and more profitable.

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I could go on and on.

This is why Durham needs a Food Policy Council. Like a food hub, we could pool together our resources and energy into one strong movement.

I just made a list of possible members for a stakeholder meeting in August.

Take a look at that diversity.

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A farmer’s view on agricultural reform

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A farmer’s view on agricultural reform

This article perfectly sums up the purpose of all my posts. That the real key to switching our broken system is to support farmers. Food sovereignty and public policy should be our focus to accomplish this. 

And it all starts with communities and cities, so let’s get started!  

Reclaiming our food sovereignty

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With this blog, I have explored the myriad variables that influence how and what we place on our tables. Food is a key part of our day, our lives, and our connection with each other and the planet. We cannot afford to sacrifice quality, natural products for corporate gain and convenience. Processed and fast foods are much more expensive than the “everyday low price” that they claim. We are spending countless dollars to treat our malnourished bodies and land.

Communities have the power to create their own food sovereignty. Local food production liberates people from the tight grip of addicting processed foods. We are all capable of growing food, of taking control of our diets, and demanding fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

Nutritious food is a right and it should not have to be expensive or special. We rely on the federal government to supply the nutritional assistance programs but it is up to cities and communities to produce properly diverse and beneficial food supplies.

When we grow in cities and support small and mid-size farmers, we are supporting the future of food. These are the farmers will grow crops over than corn, soybean, and wheat. They will care about the impact on the land and about their consumers.

Local food systems address the needs of a community and provide the nutritious food necessary to lead a productive life. When residents get involved and collaborate, amazing new innovations occur. We create more safe, fun, and green places that empower populations to control their own fate. Food is revolutionary by nature. The more we come together with resources and ideas, the more power we will have over our food choices.

How is food waste integrated into the system?

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I have discussed policy, production, distribution, and marketing of food in a community. Another key component to a sustainable food system is waste management. Wasting food is a huge problem in the United States; about 40% of food each year goes uneaten, which equates to about $165 billion in food that is thrown out (Plumer, 2012). Large, industrial farms are one reason. The longer distances our food travels, the bigger the chance that grocers will overstock or that food goes bad quicker and gets thrown away earlier.

Community food systems are more efficient for waste management. Composting can greatly decrease the amount of methane given off from discarded fruits and vegetables (Plumer, 2012). In turn, urban farmers can use the compost to fertilize their soil.

Reducing food waste can also tie into strategies to reduce hunger in communities. The Interfaith Food Shuttle, in North Carolina, recovers food from food retailers before it is thrown away and uses it to make free hot meals for anyone in need. In 2011, they recovered 7.1 million points of food from over 350 donors. They also have urban agriculture, nutrition, and job training programs to address hunger from a variety of levels.

Doug Rouch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is starting a store called Daily Table that will prepare food that is past its sell-by date and sell the meals at junk food prices (Reeves, 2013). Rouch demonstrates that our food does not have to be perfect to eat. The closer the connection to our food, the more we will appreciate the intricate steps it takes to get to the table.

The issue of our food system is not the amount that we produce, it is the way we grow it and the way it is distributed to various populations. Each level of the food system is interconnected; our health and environment is dependent on these processes.

Plumer, B. (2012). How the U.S. manages to waste $165 billion in food each year. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/22/how-food-actually-gets-wasted-in-the-united-states/

Reeves, H. (2013). ‘In the old days, you’d smell the milk’ Doug Rouch wants to sell outdated food at junk-food prices. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazine/doug-rauch-wants-to-sell-outdated-food-at-junk-food-prices.html?_r=0

How does local food connect to schools?

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In elementary school, our teacher always told us, “You will need to know this” or “This will be useful later.” We worked through abstract lessons in biology and multiplication tables, sometimes questioning the connection it had to our lives. There is never that question when it comes to food. Our eating choices affect how we feel, act and think. Yet, for a long time we have not provided kids with essential knowledge about where our food comes from or why we eat what we eat. One of the most important life skills is choosing and preparing foods that are good for you. Kids love eating, playing, and being outside; so let us take advantage of their energy and teach them about food.

Many schools are beginning to integrate local food into school meals in order to support nearby farmers and improve the health of students. A healthy meal is essential for a productive day of school and most of us are familiar with the mystery meat served with soggy vegetables and sugary sides that have graced the plates of many school meals. Now, farm to school programs have been started in approximately 38,629 schools nationwide and many schools have committed to providing fresh, delicious meals for students (USDA). Schools use clever terms like “crunch lunch” for salad bars and “grab apples” for sliced apples. Creative new options have been proven to improve kids’ food choices at home and the amount of fruits and vegetable servings (Elsener, Eschmeyer, & Davidson, n.d.).

Farm to school lunch programs open up a multimillion-dollar market to family farmers. In 2011-2012, schools farm to school initiatives bought $350 million in local food and more than 50% of those schools planned to use more in the future (USDA).

Farm to school can often be supplemented with curriculum that covers nutrition, cooking, and ecological lessons about food. Starting a school edible garden is one of the best ways to integrate the food curriculum and bring the school to the farm. Kids love to get dirty and be active, so why don’t we put them to work in a garden? This interaction with the origins of food provides sustainable, positive change to food habits. Students start to prefer fruits and vegetables and they gain a full understanding and positive attitude toward the school lunch program, their food choices, seasonal produce, and the ecological impact of food systems (Turpin, 2010). Of course these gardens require lots of time, funding, and hard work (Turpin, 2010). School districts must be dedicated to the cause. However, it is possible to use a variety of resources from farmers and food organizations. Lessons in food and eating are more crucial than ever to support healthy, productive, and happy students. 

 

Elsener, M., Eschmeyer, D., & Davidson, S. (n.d.). Nourishing the nation one tray at a time: Farm to school initiatives in the child nutrition reauthorization. National Farm to School Network. Retrieved from: http://www.farmtoschool.org/files/publications_192.pdf

“Farm to School.” USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Retrieved from: http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/farm-school

Turpin, A. (2010). Study on school gardens brings fresh results. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2010/10/01/study-on-school-gardens-brings-fresh-results/

What does equitable food retail look like?

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The term “food desert” implies impossibility for growth; it implies that an area is dried up, that the environment has determined one’s fate to have low access to fresh food. But any community can have “fertile” land if community members are willing to collaborate for healthy food access. Large corporate grocery stores have begun to use the “food desert” term as a public relations tool. Walmart has started an initiative to put more stores in “food desserts”, as a way to demonstrate a commitment to social change. Michelle Obama may have praised them for their efforts to make fruits and vegetables more affordable but real solutions lie within communities themselves. Walmart does not support sustainable food systems. Healthy, local food sales have started to appear in already existing corner convenient stores in order to address food availability and health disparity. These initiatives allow businesses and consumers to increase healthy options while also enhancing local food movements.

 The hidden costs of food have a severe effect on health disparities in the US. Chronic illnesses associated with food insecurity (diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease) are more avoidable than ever. Store accessibility is a major factor on SNAP redemption choices (FRAC, 2013). Convenient stores are beginning to utilize existing resources and strength of location to stock healthy food. Before, the challenges were too great and demand too low to bother but this is starting to change (Gittelsohn & Anliker, 2010). Corner stores can provide healthy, local food in areas that are relying on fast and processed meals. They are also typically in places of low-income and racial minority settings, in close proximity with SNAP recipients.

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This demonstrates the relationship between unhealthy food options, income, and race in Durham and Chapel Hill, NC.
Source: The spatial and socio-economic distribution of healthy food options in Durham-Chapel Hill, NC. US EPA/ORD

 In Philadelphia, the Healthy Corner Store Network has made great strides to expand fruit and vegetable sales in low-access areas. They provide direct support for store owners to properly stock, display and sell healthy food. They have decals and posters that identify that the store has healthy options. The website also has a map of healthy corner stores, SNAP participating stores, and farmers markets to make finding a convenient location easy and simple. They also evaluate barriers for storeowners and the impact and sale of healthy food in order to make appropriate changes and increase efficiency.

In order for SNAP benefits to truly improve the health disparities in our nation, local movements must provide a wide range of healthy and convenient choices. Convenient stores have more flexibility with the marketing of healthy food and maximizing efficiency based on customer preferences and local availability. With networks such as the Healthy Corner Store Network, cities can stock food directly from farmers or community gardens can supply produce to the nearest convenient store. Enhancing fresh food availability in unexpected places can strengthen the scope and impact of SNAP benefits. Most importantly, keeping food supply local maintains power for residents to make their own food decisions and have a say in the sources and supply of healthy food.

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Gittelsohn, J. & Anliker, J.A. (2010). Process evaluation of Baltimore healthy stores: A pilot health intervention program with supermarkets and corner stores in Baltimore City. Health Promotion Practice, 11(5). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3042858/

 (2013). A review of strategies to bolster SNAP’s role in improving nutrition as well as food security. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Retrieved from: http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/SNAPstrategies.pdf

Farmers and food security: how can we make food distribution equitable?

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As I discussed in my last post, local food systems rely on community connections to farmers and fresh food. Food distribution must be equitable and address all populations in need. Farmers Markets provide a public setting for the local food movement that can incorporate any income and cooking ability. These markets are the fastest growing direct to consumer food enterprise. Markets have tripled in number over the last 15 years and over 25% of farmers acquire a majority of their income from farmers markets (Young, Karpyn, Uy, Wich, & Glyn, 2011). Farmers markets link the urban and rural food systems and express the need for healthy, affordable food for all.  Farmers can accept food assistance credit and provide key knowledge to consumers about buying and preparing fresh food through farmers’ market stands or community supported agriculture (CSA).

There are a number of programs in place to make farmers’ markets more accessible for low-income individuals and families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a national hunger safety net that offers financial assistance to people who are food insecure. Food security is a term to describe one’s access to safe and nutritious food that promote an active lifestyle (WHO). Under SNAP, there is the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and seniors (SFMNP) (Owens & Veral, 2010). These are often transferred through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. FMNP coupons and SNAP credit can be redeemed at farmers markets, which enhances equitable access to healthy food. In 2008, over 28 million people in the US were enrolled in SNAP (49% of which are children), which equates to $35 billion dollars in nutritional benefits (Owens & Veral, 2010).

Farmers market programs have undoubtedly increased fruit and vegetable consumption for low-income women, seniors, and children (FRAC, 2013). However, there is always room for improvement. SNAP redemptions at farmers markets made up only 0.01% of the $64.4 billion total redemptions in 2010 (FRAC, 2013). There needs to be more authorized retailers and fewer barriers for low-income or working families (FRAC, 2013). Farmers markets should work on outreach, education, and transportation for SNAP recipients (FRAC, 2013).

Farmers markets can even advertise for CSA programs that accept SNAP/EBT to connect the movement between enterprises. CSA members, or “share-holders” can receive weekly packages of fresh produce supplied by a local farmer (FRAC, 2013, p. 10). These can be delivered or picked up at a convenient location. CSA farmers can accept SNAP or provide subsidized membership fee for low-income families. It is crucial that food venues reach out to nutrition program recipients to make the benefits and availability known.

Market access for farmers and healthy food access for consumers are interconnected requirements for a fair food system. Public food venues that are dedicated to fair food demonstrate that the state and future of what we eat is bound with a whole community, not an individual. In my next post, I will describe more ways that equitable food outlets have taken root in communities.

Food security. World Health Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/ 

Owens, N. & Verel, K. (2010). SNAP/EBT at your farmers market: Seven Steps to Success. Project for Public Spaces & Wholesome Wave. Retrieved from: http://www.pps.org/pdf/SNAP_EBT_Book.pdf

Young, C., Karpyn, A., Uy, N., Wich, K., & Glyn, J. (2011). Farmers markets in low income communities: Impact of community, environment, food programs, and public policy. Journal of the Community Development Society, 402, 208-220. doi: 10.1080/15575330.2010.551663

(2013). A review of strategies to bolster SNAP’s role in improving nutrition as well as food security. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Retrieved from: http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/SNAPstrategies.pdf