By Samuel Fromartz
Given the recent financial crisis, deepening recession, and looming food crisis for the poor, I thought it a good time to contact Mark Winne, author of the excellent and readable book Closing the Food Gap, published earlier this year.
Winne worked on getting food for low-income communities in Hartford, Conn., at a time when the middle class -- and supermarkets -- were exiting the city in droves. He sought to do this with food from local farms and fledgling community gardens (where the community was at times ambivalent about the endeavor, as he recounts in his book). Now this was long before local food was all the rage. In fact, we're talking about the late 1970s and 1980s .
Even back then, he saw the potential conflict in trying to protect the livelihood of farmers and also provide access to healthy and affordable food -- a conflict that lives with us, with even more intensity today.
With the news rising about food scarcity for the poor, I emailed him a few questions to muse on our current situation.
Fromartz: Economists are predicting the deepest recession since 1980-81, possibly the worst recession of the post-World War II era. Was this the tsunami you always feared when working on food access issues in the inner city?
Winne: Yes, this could be the Big One that we've always feared. We indeed have all the makings of a perfect storm -- rising energy and food prices, caving financial markets, and high unemployment. There will be many victims, but unfortunately not the ones who got us into this mess, namely the tasseled loafer crowd.
What I dread the most is the impact that a massive economic downtown will have on the poor and the near poor. Taken together, those two categories constitute almost a third of all Americans. Just when we were starting to put together the political will and economic resources to turn things around in low-wealth communities, states are slashing their budgets, the federal government is using all their/our money to bail out the banks, and the lines at food banks are growing longer. Right now the Food Stamp Program has more people enrolled than at any time in its 40 year history, and food banks don't even have Fruit Loops to give out.
Fromartz: Wal-Mart recently reported that it noticed a spike in sales of baby formula around payday, which means these shoppers can only afford bare necessities when they get paid. In your experience, is this unusual?
Winne: When times get tough, as they are now, you will see unusual forms of consumer behavior. What's happening at Wal-Mart is nothing more than the kind of coping strategies that lower income families have always been forced to resort to: stretching the paycheck as far as they can, putting off paying the rent or the credit card bill in order to eat, or sending their children out to play with their friends late in the afternoon in hopes that their friends' family will invite them for supper. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has euphemistically labeled these strategies "food insecurity", which means nothing more than people adapting to harsh circumstances to survive. Right now, according to USDA, that's 35 million Americans, a number that is likely to go up when they release their latest findings very soon.
Fromartz: You've written about the lack of access to healthy, fresh food in the inner city. Have you encountered an example of any company really willing to tackle this issue or will the solutions come from elsewhere?
Winne: One of the best examples of a public/private partnership designed to bring food stores back into underserved communities is the Fresh Food Financing Initiative created by the State of Pennsylvania and advocated for by the Philadelphia Food Trust. Since the program was created in 2005, it has financed the development of over 20 new supermarkets, resulting in one million square feet of new food retail space and 2,500 new jobs. What I find particularly interesting about these new stores is that they are all independent food stores operators. Not a single major chain supermarket has stepped up to the plate.
This suggests to me that the answers are going to come from a combination of good solid advocacy and research by non-profit organizations, the public sector closing the financing gap with taxpayer funds, and indigenous businesses -- those that already exist in the communities and know the terrain. In saying that, I think it is unfortunate that major corporations that walked away from inner-city America over the past 30 years don't have the decency or the character to reinvest once again in those communities.
Fromartz: Michael Pollan and others have argued that cheap food (the subsidized corn-soy-meat driven food system) doesn't reflect its true cost, in terms of environmental damage or health-related expenses. If food did reflect its true cost would the poor be better off or worse off?
Winne: Like everybody else, I love Michael Pollan. We're both former Connecticut boys which means we have nutmeg running in our veins. But Michael gives short shrift to what his vision for a responsible food system would do to America's poor. Without a doubt, his ideas, if put into practice, would send the food insecurity rates into the stratosphere, unless there was a plan ready to be launched simultaneously that would enable low-income families to buy the same high quality, all-costs-accounted-for food that affluent foodies buy. So far, he hasn't shared that plan with anyone that I know.
Fromartz: What is your ideal vision for an urban food system?
Winne: Community gardens and farmers' markets in every neighborhood; food integrated into every aspect of the school life; supermarkets readily accessible to all major population centers and adequately serviced by public transportaton; and food policy councils that actively and effectively engage citizens and policy makers in monitoring and improving the performance of the community's food systems.
Fromartz: In a new administration, what is the No. 1 policy initiative the president can take to raise food access for low-income people?
Winne: One of the very little victories that came out the 2008 Farm Bill was the requirement that USDA conduct a "food desert" study, meaning that they assess the barriers and recommend solutions to making healthy and affordable food available in all communities.
The results of that study should be sitting on the new President's desk on January 20, 2009, and within his first 100 days he should send to Congress a bill to create a "Re-Store America" program that will do some of what the Pennsylvania FFFI program has done, but add to it funding for farmers' markets, community and urban gardens, infrastructure that will aid in the development of local and sustainable food systems, and initiatives that will promote food competency in our nation's schools.