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Hungry for more

University-community partnership seeks healthy food for all

June 24, 2014

livable cities food accessThe majority of food consumed in American cities is transported from at least 1,500 miles away.

And yet, in urban areas like Detroit, more than half of the population is out of reach of fresh food, shopping for meals at the corner liquor store or convenience mart.

As you digest such numbers, it quickly becomes clear: in meeting the nation’s food needs, our performance is wanting, with implications for nutrition and health, community stability, and local economies.

An interdisciplinary team of UW-Madison scientists is working toward solutions, supported by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’ve teamed with UW-Extension, the nonprofit organization Growing Power, Wayne State University, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and a range of community-based organizations to study ways to boost the availability and consumption of healthy food in urban communities.

"This is an exciting project that brings together the research and educational capacity of the university with on-the-ground knowledge of community groups such as Growing Power," Steve Ventura, the project’s co-leader and a professor of environmental studies and soil science, said at the time of the project’s launch.

Efforts are focused initially on Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, three cities where food insecurity is considered extensive.

"The overall goal is to integrate research, outreach, education and advocacy,” Ventura explains, “leading to improved understanding of how to build and maintain successful community and regional food systems, and enhance implementation in communities at risk.”

Change agents

“So often, the question is, if we believe that access to healthy food is a human right, whose responsibility is it?” says Monica White, a professor of environmental justice with a shared appointment in the Nelson Institute and Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. “Some might argue it's the market, some might argue it's politicians, and some might argue it’s the community.”

White is specifically interested in the community aspect of the equation, studying the creative approaches grassroots organizations and communities of color have adopted in response to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility. Her past research has focused on African American resistance to food insecurity and on documenting the history of black farmers' collectives, cooperatives and experiences in the American Midwest and South.

Urban agriculture in Chicago
UW scientists and a range of organizations are
working to boost the availability and consumption
of healthy food in urban communities. Photo: CRFS

“My interests are the novel, creative ideas that people engage in order to increase access to healthy foods,” White explains. “Citizens of Detroit are not sitting around waiting to see what's going to happen. They’ve done a number of things to engage and challenge the food system.”

Take, for example, the Peaches & Greens mobile produce market, a converted ice cream truck that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables – some of it grown on community farms with volunteer assistance – to residents of inner city Detroit who wouldn’t otherwise have access to such items.

In addition to her teaching and research at UW-Madison, White serves as president of the board of directors of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. From mini-farms to market gardens, the organization’s urban agricultural initiatives have not only helped build community self-reliance and activity around local food security; they’ve also drawn visitors from across the country and the world as an environmental and agricultural tourism destination.

“Urban agriculture is a way in which communities are intervening in the food system and coming up with very creative ways to do so,” says White. “This cuts across race, class, age and ability. The Detroit model says those who can afford healthy food should not be the only ones to have it.”

In Detroit, large portions of the population lack access to healthy food due to either geographic or economic boundaries, with African American, Hispanic and impoverished communities disproportionately affected. These communities tend to purchase food from so-called fringe markets – stores that draw the majority of their sales from lottery tickets, alcohol and tobacco, and offer little by way of fresh food.

“They sell the types of food which we know have typically been associated with diet-related illnesses,” says White. “If you're talking about people who do not have access to transportation, or limited access, and these are the places where they access food, this is scary. How do you feed your family in a place where these are the options closest to you?”

Food insecure

Alfonso Morales, who is working on a forthcoming book on urban agriculture, says this lack of access to nutritious food options – and a correlated increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes and a range of other public health concerns – crept into urban American communities in the 1970s.

“In the 70s, there were two trends: One, middle class folks started going to farmers’ markets, and two, grocers started seeing increased costs of doing business in low income communities and communities of color,” says Morales, a professor of urban and regional planning and a participant in the food systems project. “They started abandoning those communities, basically redlining them in the same way that neighborhoods got redlined for real estate purposes. That leaves behind few options for food.”

Applying an ecological metaphor, Morales says a strong food system requires speciation, or the creation of new “species” of food distribution, incorporating everything from street vendors and pushcart vendors to food delivery services such as Peapod and Schwan’s, and from street markets, farmers’ markets and typical storefront retail to gardens and self production. 

“A robust food system that produces food security is one where there’s not a reliance on a single approach to food access,” he explains. “We have to be willing to make available regulatory and economic incentives to permit the repopulation of our food retail environment.”

“Urban agriculture is a way
in which communities are
intervening in the food system
and coming up with very
creative ways to do so. This
cuts across race, class, age
and ability.
-Monica White

However, he says, efforts can’t stop at simply making fresh food available to consumers. For example, marketplaces that incorporate the option of nutrition assistance program payments can improve access for low- and no-income populations, but a person may not know how to – or have the equipment necessary to – prepare the market items.

“One of the problems is a lot of the folks we target have diminished their capacity to process that food in their homes,” Morales explains. “Their capacity to cook it, to store it, to serve it has all been eroded.”

"Because of this generational absence of grocery stores from their communities, because of the proliferation of fast food and microwave food, and because of poverty, where they just can’t pay their bills to have refrigeration, or their refrigerator breaks and they don’t have the money to replace it, they live literally hand to mouth,” he continues.

White says organizations in Detroit are leading a series of conversations around similar issues: “Once you grow food, how do people access it, and then once people access it, what do they do with it?”

She’s seen that community dinners and local cooking demonstrations, especially those connected to a community’s cultural heritage, can provide a springboard for action.

“Food preparation and preservation is an important element of the work we do, making sure it's not just that I have access to healthy food, but also that my neighbors have access to healthy food.”

Ventura points to a successful community engagement project on the south side of Milwaukee that enlisted local grocers to sponsor cooking classes and feature healthy new products appropriate for the predominantly Latino community. Now, two local community-based organizations continue these activities.

Morales says such skills are being revived in youth, as well, for example through once-abandoned home economics courses or Future Farmers of America activities. “These kinds of clubs and classes are making a comeback in response in part to the public health disaster we invited on ourselves, and in part in a proactive way, to enrich people’s lives and to revalue that knowledge and those abilities,” he says.

Growing interest

Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power and co-director with Steve Ventura of the food systems research project, says in addition to engaging and empowering at-risk communities, a sustainable food system must build the infrastructure for future generations of entrepreneurs and agriculturalists.

His farm and community food center, based in Milwaukee, has become the largest urban agriculture organization in the world, with 300 acres of outside production, 25 acres of greenhouses and a large-scale aquaponics system. His team recently completed the largest farm-to-school procurement in USDA history, selling 40,000 pounds of carrots to schools in Chicago and Wisconsin. 

The researchers say efforts can’t stop at making fresh
food available to consumers; food preparation and
preservation skills are also important
. Photo: CRFS

“I didn't set out to be [the world’s largest]; along the continuum it just happened,” Allen says. “And part of that was to prove that this can be done. To prove that you can change the dynamics of a city by being able to grow enough food like we do.”

But organizations alone can’t solve the world’s challenges, he says. He sees his role as bolstering the next generation with the skills and drive required.

“Are nonprofits going to build the food system that we need? No,” he says. “This will be done by entrepreneurs that we train and help to develop. We have to grow a lot of farmers.”

Ventura readily admits that we will never grow enough food within cities to feed the entire urban population, but he contends that “building just and sustainable food systems that include local production will benefit consumers and communities. And universities can help identify and enhance these benefits.”

Research is needed on land access, production methods, food preparation and processing, distribution and marketing, waste recycling, and the policies and economics that surround the food supply chain. 

“This challenge, worthy of a great land grant university, can be met through collaboration with community organizations,” he concludes.