By Ryan Regan, Project Associate
The world recently celebrated World Food Day, an international day of recognition that seeks to raise awareness about the prevalence of worldwide hunger. Even in the year 2015, persistent hunger and malnutrition (especially among children) remains a chronic problem in many countries. According to the World Food Programme of the United Nations, poor nutrition is the cause of death in almost half of the world’s children under the age of five, and one out of six children in developing countries is underweight.
Sadly, it comes as no surprise that issues of hunger and malnutrition are especially acute in developing countries, but food insecurity also affects millions of Americans, and overcoming this obstacle is a community development challenge that is deserving of more attention. The term “food desert” is used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to describe mainly low-income communities that lack access to reliable sources of affordable fresh produce and other healthy food items. Urban census tracts that are located beyond one mile of a suitable food source and rural census tracts that lack similar access within 10-miles are the distinguishing factors of food deserts. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts in the United States, and about 2 million of those live in the state of Georgia.
The prevalence of food deserts in the United States is another reminder of the economic disparities that plague the world’s wealthiest country, which unfortunately too oftentimes fall along lines of race and ethnicity. Consider the fact that all of the top-10 most food insecure counties in Georgia, listed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program’s County Health Rankings index, are in majority-minority counties. In my home state of North Carolina, the top-12 most food insecure counties are all majority-minority counties. Unsurprisingly, these counties are also plagued by poor health outcomes like high rates of obesity and diabetes. It has been well-documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that racial and ethnic minority populations are disproportionately burdened by poor health outcomes, and it’s hard to ignore the impact that food insecurity has on this reality.
Community and economic development is such a broad field that it can be easy to forget how important something as seemingly basic as healthy food can be to the overall equation. A community is only as strong as its workforce, and ensuring that the local workforce has equitable access to affordable, healthy food options is essential to maintaining its long-term sustainability. Expanding a community’s healthy food options can also support the local economy through increased job opportunities, especially via small locally-owned businesses.
Here’s a look at a few examples of community-based food organizations that are helping to meet the healthy food needs of underserved communities:
· Added Value – This organization supports sustainable development in the heart of Brooklyn by promoting urban farming enterprises. Over ten years ago, they developed the Red Hook Community Farm, a thriving 3-acre community farm that sits on an old abandoned school lot. The farm eventually became so successful that it spurred the creation of a farmers market that runs from June-November. Just last year, 20,000 pounds of produce was produced by the farm and made available to local residents at affordable prices.
Through a creative youth empowerment program, Added Value trains and mentors up to 25 local teens per year in a hands-on learning environment that teaches them the value of hard work and healthy foods. The farm also serves as a popular field trip destination for thousands of area students who get an opportunity to hear about the farm’s farm-based learning programs. The employment, mentorship, and learning opportunities made available at the farm are helping to keep high-risk youth engaged in their community.
· Nuestras Raices – The English translation of this group is “Our Roots,” which is an apt description of this community-driven organization that promotes economic, human, and community development in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The organization was created in 1992 by a group of migrating farmers from Puerto Rico who saw a need for community leadership in a community saddled with extreme poverty and economic despair. Putting their agricultural acumen to good use, they started a community garden on an abandoned lot that was previously a hotbed for criminal activity. This one garden created a domino effect and Nuestras Raices now has a network of 12 community gardens with over 100 member families who grow thousands of dollars’ worth of produce on their garden plots each year.
More importantly, the organization has facilitated the development of the social capital and community bonds that are invaluable to a community. Nuestras Raices now operates an environmental program that addresses environmental issues in the community, a youth program that engages youth and teaches them the economic and health benefits of community gardening, and a financial literacy program that teaches residents about the value of home ownership and entrepreneurship.
· Taos Food Center – Located in Taos, New Mexico, the Taos Food Center is a core program of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation. The Taos Food Center boasts over 5,000 square feet of commercial kitchen space and industrial-grade appliances that have served the needs of over 100 small businesses in the Northern New Mexico area over the past 20 years. The Taos Food Center has been both a great economic and cultural resource for the community that has helped to revive rich American Indian and Hispanic culinary traditions and provide economic opportunities to these disadvantaged groups. In addition to the business benefits of the space itself, the Taos Food Center also offers technical assistance services in the form of specialized training, product development, regulatory assistance, and marketing assistance.
Promoting economic opportunity should be an inherent goal of any economic development strategy. Food insecurity is one of the many forms of inequality that plague so many communities across the country. Community leaders need to see the value in promoting equitable healthy food access, especially in low-income neighborhoods, so that all residents can have the equal opportunities they deserve to be productive workers and citizens.