Addressing Poverty Through Food: Food Insecurity, Part 5

Oct 29, 2015

In the final installment of our 5-part series on food insecurity, WMRA’s Jordy Yager takes a local look at the big picture, and how it is that in the 21st century millions of Americans are still lacking access to adequate food.

Last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14 percent of U.S. households reported being food insecure at some point. That’s more than 17 million households. In the United States. Just last year.

That’s more than the total population of the Netherlands. It’s more than the total number of people who tuned in to watch the Democratic Presidential Debate this month. And it’s more than twice the number of people who live in the state of Virginia.

PAUL FREEDMAN: How is it possible, you say, in a nation with so many resources, in a nation that is so well fed in so many ways, how is it possible? And the answer is poverty. Right? Because what we know about food insecurity is that it is a result of and a manifestation of poverty. Poverty is the most important predictor of food insecurity.

That’s Paul Freedman, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s department of politics and a founding member of UVA’s Food Collaborative. The collaborative was started five years ago to promote research, education, and community engagement around food and agriculture. Freedman’s been looking very closely at food insecurity, and specifically at the 900,000 Virginians who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from. It’s not a number you’d expect to hear from a state like Virginia. A state that’s so agriculturally rich.

FREEDMAN: It seems glaring because we have such a bounty of food. There is so much available, in so many forms. Good food, bad food, industrial food, local food. And we happen to live in a place that is extremely fortunate to have an abundance of locally produced food of all sorts. And so I think it — in our area in particular, it can be particularly striking.

That’s the main problem the Local Food Hub has been trying to solve for the past six years. The Local Food Hub partners with about 70 small and medium-sized local farms to try to make their food the main source of food for Charlottesville, Albemarle, Harrisonburg, Richmond, and even around Washington D.C. That’s everybody from your favorite local restaurant to area non-profit groups. Last year, the Local Food Hub purchased close to $1 million worth of produce from local farms, which reached millions of people.

Kristen Suokko is the executive director.

KRISTEN SUOKKO: It was founded on the idea that, the fact that local farms are boxed out of these larger markets, for a whole host of reasons, and the fact that institutions, where most people eat, were unable to easily access local food — that somehow that gap needed to be bridged.  And that’s what Local Food Hub really tries to do. We make it easier on the farmers by taking on all of the liability and the marketing and the sales and giving them tools that they need to be able to grow for these markets. And we make it easy for the purchasers by aggregating and guaranteeing the safety and the quality of the food that they’re getting.

But it’s more than just providing businesses with local food. The Local Food Hub just wrapped up a successful pilot program called Fresh Farmacy. That’s Farmacy with an F. Where instead of medicine, clients at three free clinics throughout Charlottesville can get a prescription for fresh fruits and vegetables provided by The Local Food Hub. It’s helped low-income families eat more healthfully by overcoming the hurdles of access: both financial access and geographic access.

SUOKKO: We had one client of the Fresh Pharmacy program who said, ‘You know, I joined this program because I thought it might help my blood pressure, which it did, but I also started going to the farmer’s market and I realized, I actually can do this. I can get there, it’s more affordable than I thought, I’m starting to learn how to cook these foods and I think I can do this and this is going to become part of my lifestyle.’

Suokko notes the irony of food insecurity in a state with such agricultural abundance.

SUOKKO: And yet much of the food that is grown here is not consumed here and is not made available to local citizens. And the way our agricultural system has developed, the best food grown locally by the smallest farmers is not the food that is most accessible, nor most affordable.

Of course, as Freedman explains, there are other factors that contribute to food insecurity, such as the millions of pounds of fresh produce thrown away by grocery stores because it’s beyond its “best-by” date. Or the countless tons of food that rots in the fields because it’s not pretty enough to sell in stores. But when it all comes down to it, Freedman says,

FREEDMAN: The problem of food insecurity is a problem of poverty. As long as we’ve got the challenge of poverty, we will be grappling with the related challenges, like homelessness and food insecurity. That’s not to say, that our responses aren’t tremendously important. To the contrary, they’re more important because of this.