Fresh food is in short supply in some urban and rural areas because high-poverty neighborhoods tend to be underserved, experts said Thursday during a food policy symposium at the 2009 Natural Products Expo East in Boston.
Panelist Mark Winne, a food policy trainer and author of Closing the Food Gap, was the executive director of Hartford Food Systems for 25 years. He has developed and directed farmers’ markets, CSAs, food policy councils and food banks.
Winne was joined by Miriam Manon, project coordinator of the Supermarket Campaign for the Food Trust in Philadelphia, which implements the Food Financing Initiative, a public-private partnership that provides funding for fresh-food retailers across the state of Pennsylvania.
Winne said people are trying to buy more locally-grown food, and they want to know where their food comes from. But in some areas of the country, people don’t even have a supermarket in their neighborhoods.
“We want to celebrate great food, health and wealth,” Winne said. “But there are a lot of people not celebrating the abundance of food in this country.”
While we want food availability to be a just system, there continues to be a food gap. This gap is especially prevalent among women and children and is the result of the following:
• Hunger and poverty. More than 13 percent of the people in America live in poverty and 12 percent are considered food insecure. About $35 million is being spent in food stamps, more than ever in the program's history.
• Food access. Hundreds of places are considered food deserts, areas where the community is underserved by healthy, fresh food. Transportation to get to fresh food is a problem, especially in rural areas.
• Obesity and diet-related health problems. More than 60 percent are obese or overweight and the rates tend to be higher in low-income areas. About $147 billion, spent in health care, goes toward health problems associated with obesity.
The answer, Winne said, is to develop projects like community gardens, farmers’ markets, food banks and other non-profit organizations to help close the gap. Partnerships also must be a priority. Non-profits, local governments and hospitals must join forces. The third component to close the food gap is policy, he said.
"We can bring the broad shoulders of government to the discussion,” Winne said.
The Food Trust is a good example of how an organization is using partnerships and shaping policy to address food insecurity. Manon said the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative was started in 2001 to bring more supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods.
In 2004, the state was the first to commit public funding to the effort. About $30 million was allocated for three years to create $120 million for grants and loans to encourage retailers to relocate to food deserts, Manon said. In the last five years, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has funded 74 projects and created 4,854 jobs. The program has become a model for other states, including New York, Louisiana and Illinois and could be adopted across the country.
“The Obama administration is taking notice, and there is interest for more funding on the federal level,” Manon said.