Under-served Communities Hungry for Change; Nonprofits Introduce Innovative Solutions

By Emily Simonsen, Dec. 3, 2017

WASHINGTON – Earlier this year, in the period of a day, Maria Rose Belding watched as 5,000 pounds of Powerade move from a warehouse on the MEANS database, to L.A. on Cloud Nine, a nonprofit serving the greater Los Angeles homeless community and their pets. Simultaneously, L.A. on Cloud Nine paired the Powerade donation with pet food donated from another organization, allowing them to feed a huge portion of the homeless community and their pets as a part of a larger event.

“They sent us pictures,” said Belding, smiling. “This is one of our favorite stories, because we work at the 10,000-foot level, so we don’t get to see this stuff often,”

As Founder of the MEANS database, a nonprofit that reduces hunger through reducing food waste, Belding and her fellow associates have moved over 1.5 million pounds of food to-date.

“The world has a huge population and it’s growing, but if you look at the numbers there is enough food,” said Zoey Salsbury, MEANS database Deputy Director, in an interview earlier this year. “20 to 40 percent of our food gets thrown out – if we had all that food, we could feed everyone. It’s not a problem of ‘if there’s enough food,’ it’s a problem of ‘there’s not enough communication and transfer and access to that food,”

Lack of food accessibility, particularly to nutritional food, is prevalent within low-income areas according to the American Nutrition Association, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote optimal health through nutrition and wellness education. Roughly 23.5 million Americans lack access to supermarkets within a mile of their homes, while 11.5 million low-income households in low-income areas live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, according to the United States Department of Agriculture report, “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and their Consequences.”

According to the report, low income translates to transportation inaccessibility, forcing households to rely on affordable food distribution from locations traversable by foot, such as food restaurants. Additionally, low-income areas have 30 percent more convenience stores relative to middle-income areas, heightening this reliance on unhealthy food, according to a joint-study conducted by Policy Link and The Food Trust, nonprofits geared toward equity in communities of color and food accessibility, respectively.

“In food store bodegas, the only food options are overwhelming snack foods like alcohol and sugary drinks. It’s very hard to find things that are nutritional. Even if it does have these items, it’s usually very expensive,” said Belding.

Furthermore, inaccessibility and poverty predominantly afflict communities of color. For instance, in a sample of 65,174 census tracts, low-income African American communities had fewer grocery stores relative to wealthy African American communities, as well as fewer grocery stores relative to poor Caucasian communities, meaning they face the most limited access to healthy food options, according to “The Intersection of Neighborhood Racial Segregation, Poverty and Urbanicity and its Impact on Food Store Availability in the United States,” from the National Center on Biotechnology Information, a subsector of the Center for Disease Control.

Resultingly, African American adults are roughly 1.2 times more likely to be obese relative to Caucasian adults, according to the 2016-2017 National Center for Health Statistics, a subsector of the Center for Disease Control responsible for compiling information on U.S. health trends. In adults, obesity can lead to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers, and other chronic conditions, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a subsector of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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An Infographic depicting Food Accessibility statistics & what some NGOs are doing about it

“People should care about food inaccessibility because everyone should believe in equality and justice. When you have communities of color suffering at higher rates of dietary onuses, they’re not able to ‘eat their ethics’ and they’re made to feel as if they’re not as important as others,” said Lauren Ornelas, Founder and Executive Director of the Food Empowerment Project, a nonprofit that seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices, according to their website.

Solutions to food inaccessibility are not cut and dry either. From 2011 to the first quarter of 2015, only 250 supermarkets opened in low-income areas, out of the 10,300 stores that opened across the country, according to Associated Press findings.

“It’s hard for supermarkets to pop up in under-served communities because insurance rates are higher,” said Tef Reese, Food Programmer for Bread for the City, a nonprofit whose mission is to help D.C. residents living with low income to develop the power to determine the future of their own communities according to their website.

“Insurance rates for supermarkets are higher in low-income areas, because insurance companies designate these areas as dangerous,” said Reese.

Some food retailers even go as far to hinder other stores from opening in low-income areas, such as Safeway, said Ornelas.

“What Safeway does is they leave low-income communities and go to high income areas. When they leave, they put restrictive deeds on the property so new supermarkets can’t come in,” said Ornelas.

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Produce for sale outside a supermarket in D.C.’s Ward 3. Fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find in low-income areas, according to Belding. 

“Food accessibility is a human right,” said Jeffrey Bachman, a human rights professor at American University with 10-plus years of field experience. “It connects with a whole buffet of other human rights – such as accessibility for education on proper nutrition and access to healthcare to deal with malnutrition,” said Bachman.

Therefore, the best way to approach food deserts is at a local level, said Bachman.

“The population that we serve struggles with access to fresh, local food. The reality is, local is better,” said Reese.

To combat this communal inaccessibility to fresh, local food, Bread for the City’s solution was to restructure their food pantries to include healthier options, along with changing the way they discuss the issue.

“Food desert isn’t the right term,” said Reese. “It’s a food desert in the sense there’s not a lot of access to food, but reality is, it’s a systematic issue. It’s not about just food access, it’s about food justice; it’s about food apartheid. A desert is a naturally occurring thing, while food apartheid is a war on people, where local government can have a say in addressing this issue if they really cared,” said Reese.

To overcome food apartheid, it starts with community involvement, said Reese.

“People should always have a voice at the table; they’re stakeholders. The ones with the money and the ones without the money should be brought together to create value. That’s the only way to create sustainable change,” said Reese.

Besides these solutions, Bread for the City also spearheaded the City Orchid Project, a venture where they grow local fruits and vegetables on University of D.C.’s research farm before distributing to under-served communities, said Reese. Annually, Bread for the City moves 86,000 pounds of fresh produce, according to their website.

Similar solutions combating food insecurity are gaining traction in schools, such as the farming initiative introduced through Dreaming Out Loud, a nonprofit whose mission is to create economic opportunities for the DC metro region’s marginalized community members through building a healthy, equitable food system, according to their website. Through Dreaming Out Loud, Food Corps member Kat Riascos’ educates Kelly Miller Middle Schoolers about health and wellness by introducing them to Dreaming Out Loud’s new, two-acre farming program at Kelly Miller, said Riascos.

“We just finished phase 1 where we just put down fencing and tilling the land,” said Riascos. “Phase 2 – which is growing the food – will begin in the spring time. During phase 2 we’ll also be building the incubator kitchen and doing the entrepreneurial phase of having a community focused, community-centric farm,”

Besides restructuring pantries, altering how the issue is discussed, presenting new farming solutions and developing early education surrounding nutrition, Freshworks offers another, innovative solution to this issue: public-private financing programs.

As a Californian nonprofit, Freshworks invests in grocery stores and other forms of healthy food retail and distribution in underserved communities; their partnerships and financing supporting over 78 projects and totaling more than $70 million invested in California communities, according to the website.

“California is interesting in that it’s the Capitol P producer of food and also the leader in low food accessibility. If you go to Central Valley, you find a lot of food access issues right where the food is grown,” said Daniel Hlad, Director of Development and Communications at Freshworks. “A grocery store isn’t gonna solve the problem. It’s about looking for partnerships that can make a difference,”

As Hlad explained, one of Freshworks’ partnerships are with Food Commons Fresno, a program that provides schools with retail food. Through the partnership, Freshworks supports Fresno’s creation and distribution of school lunches to children in underserved communities, said Hlad.

Exposure to these healthy options, however, take time.

“Kids and adults are fundamentally not that different,” said Belding. “You can’t show up with food they’ve never eaten before – you have to work with someone, like incorporating small, healthy changes into recipes they like overtime,” said Belding. “It’s about finding ways to meet people where they are. That’s how we can create change,”

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