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Will Food Access Feed the Hungry?

September 13, 2012

Hunger Solutions MN and a consortium of health, education, nonprofit, and agriculture representatives recently sponsored a Food Access Summit that drew 400 people from throughout Minnesota. Its purpose was to address healthy food access and affordability for low-income Minnesotans, and to foster partnerships that mitigate hunger and poor nutrition and promote health. Participants talked about everything from food shelves to fresh produce in corner stores; from hunger and obesity to school gardens and regional food systems.

Patti Whitney-Wise, Director of Partners for A Hungry Free Oregon and guest speaker at the conference, spoke about factors that drive hunger – such as a shift in jobs, housing costs, utilities, health care, child care, transportation and food costs. Whitney-Wise brought us to the heart of the matter, stating: “hunger is an income issue.” After research and extensive dialogue with its residents, advocates in Oregon developed a 5-year plan: Ending Hunger Before it Begins – Oregon’s Call to Action 2010 – 2015.

The report acknowledges that our most common response to hunger is to feed people immediately, and while critical in the short-term, this response does not address the underlying causes of hunger.  The Oregon plan surmised that: Economic stability is the most effective permanent solution to hunger and food insecurity.

Their plan hinges on three main goals:

  1. Increase economic stability for people, communities, and the state.
  2. Cultivate a strong regional food system in Oregon.
  3. Improve the food assistance safety net.

One of their strategies includes asking all State Departments to incorporate these goals into their own budgets and work goals. Theirs will be a state to watch and learn from.

We know that access and resources to buy healthy food do not necessarily mean that people will eat healthier. In the shadow of food access (geographically and economically), sits our personal eating habits, and how much we know about choosing or preparing healthy meals. This is more difficult to address than stocking food shelves. For some families and individuals, there is a generation for which the link to growing up with home-grown food and meals is missing or broken – who instead resort to convenience stores and fast-food restaurants for their main meals. For this population, life style changes and “food know-how” will be as critical as food access and a good income.

There are opportunities to restore this link. One way is to advocate and support schools that connect kids with farmers, and teach them about growing food in their own school gardens. Oregon State U recently published a study in August measuring the impacts of gardening education programs on children’s nutrition knowledge, preference for fruit and vegetables, and/or consumption of fruit and vegetables. They learned that while nutrition education programs produced marginal results, gardening increased vegetable consumption in children.  They further hypothesized that “gardening increases access to vegetables and gardening decreases children’s reluctance to try new foods.”

It may be our school children that restore our broken link to real food.  If you are unfamiliar with current food industry topics related to schools, consider these inspiring stories from kids taking on food issues. At nine years of age, Martha Payne from Scotland spoke out about school lunches, and now writes an internationally renowned blog. At 11 years of age, Birke Baehr, an aspiring organic farmer inspired by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, wowed a TED Talk audience with his message to “know your farmer and know your food.”  For a sobering talk about kids and food, watch Jamie Oliver (not quite as young) giving this TED Talk in 2010 about his efforts to change school menus.

Not every school, family or individual has the resources or space or time to grow food, and we need to thank and support all those individuals and organizations, too numerous to mention here, who work so arduously to get food to those struggling through tough times. Food shelves, WIC and SNAP programs are vital and necessary – they’re just not sufficient.

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