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|The Roadmap to Food Equity: The Gap in the U.S. Food System|
|Written by Quinney D. Harris, Ann Hoskins-Brown, and Jan Shaeffer|
The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis that requires unprecedented action. While the stagnant economy, national debt, healthcare, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might register on your radar as our country’s most pressing problems, there is an underlying crisis at the very core of our society that is undermining the nation’s health, prosperity and sustainability. It is a crisis of the U.S. food system, encompassing all of the components involved in the production, harvesting, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing and preparation of the food we consume.
The U.S. food system is comprised of a vast network of farmers, farm workers, cultivated land, natural resources, consumers, communities and food organizations. This complex system flourishes and provides the greatest benefit when it is healthy for farmers, our families and communities, and the environment. Unfortunately, it has been an ongoing challenge to focus on the importance of our collective health when the national conversation is muddled by advocates for choice, personal responsibility, profit and convenience.
The lack of consensus on a philosophical paradigm has left our nation’s food system in utter disarray, creating new problems for society at large:
What does the equitable model look like?
Over the past 13 years, St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children (SCFC) has created, managed and supported programming addressing the greatest health needs of kids served by St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children (SCHC). When a community needs assessment revealed significant food access barriers in the communities surrounding SCHC, the Farm to Families concept was born: a modified Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program offering individuals the opportunity to purchase weekly produce boxes for $10 and $15.
Through our work with the Farm to Families program, SCFC is targeting communities identified as food deserts with limited access to affordable, fresh foods. Day‐to‐day implementation of the program brings so much learning. We’ve learned that we must first create a market for Farm to Families. While the areas we serve have a self-identified need for food access, and most say they will purchase fresh food if it is sold affordably, convincing individuals and families to purchase an unseen good with their very limited resources requires sales skills and incredible powers of persuasion.
Much like inner-city enclaves across the country, the neighborhoods we serve are fast food friendly with an abundance of corner stores and local takeout restaurants that appeal to low-wealth families due to the cost, convenience and pleasant taste of the food. The odds are stacked against these families. Generations of economic desuetude, social isolation and prolonged reliance on an unhealthy, low-cost food supply (e.g., ramen noodles, Little Hugs, sodas, cold cuts, Kool-Aid, greasy takeout, fried and junk foods) has created a subculture mostly sustaining itself on unhealthy food with little nutritional value.
Indie rap artists Loer Velocity and Donnan Links rap about this phenomenon in the song “Hood Diet.” In the song’s hook, the rappers intone, “It’s the ‘hood diet.’ I know it looks good, but don’t try it! ‘Cause you can get lots of headaches, upset stomach, and high cholesterol. You might vomit on the ‘hood diet.’” While many individuals have a personal preference for the sweet, salty, greasy and fried foods that the rappers bemoan, the bad choices and poor food consumption behaviors partially arise out of a lack of retail food options.
What does it take to get there?
Social change isn’t easy. In fact, it’s downright daunting. However, there are lives at stake and to not take action would be a dereliction of duty. In order to transform our broken food system, we must remain proactive, seeking opportunities to collaborate, thinking creatively, and engaging in difficult conversations. Here in the City of Philadelphia, local organizations are working to catalyze this process by identifying and eliminating many of the barriers that hinder disenfranchised communities from accessing fresh food. While this is an important first step, there is still much work to be done.
These reinvigorated marketing strategies go hand-in-hand with policy work to influence and promote food system reform at the local, state and federal levels. It is imperative for lawmakers to put policies in place to provide the nation’s children with healthier school lunches, support small family farms, protect the environment, and restructure the entire system so that a handful of large companies no longer own a huge portion of the U.S. food system from seed to plant. Our nation’s food policy has been hijacked by big business and their allies in Washington for far too long. It’s time to demand change to protect our communities and the future of our children.
What are the benefits once you’ve achieved it?
Reforming the U.S. food system will benefit everyone connected to the system, resulting in synergy for farmers, farm workers, buyers, consumers, communities and food organizations, while also benefiting the environment. With the proper support in place for food business development, our region will thrive and benefit from economic development and healthier neighborhoods with a new supply of jobs, increased home values, and a plentiful supply of fresh, wholesome foods that are locally grown. The community food network will also pull communities closer together by building relationships, sharing resources and promoting understanding across cultures.
With an ample supply of healthy food available and easily accessible, policies and marketing strategies in place to promote healthy eating, and the risks and benefits of the food system equally distributed, all neighborhoods will finally have equal ability to make healthy choices. As it becomes appealing, convenient and affordable to eat healthily, more people will be able to make the smart choices that are now burdensome and tough.
Jan Shaeffer is the Executive Director of St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children where she leads the organization’s strategic direction, communications, management and grantmaking.