Remarks on The Face of Hunger : Our Neighbor in Need

I was invited to speak at Emmanuel Episocal Church on hunger in the city of Richmond as a part of their Sunday Forum in Lent in March of 2013: Serving our Neighbor in Need series; the following are the remarks from that talk”

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (U.N. 1948), Article 25

The human body relies on a around 2000 calories a day to function. Without that the body and mind start to slow down to compensate for the lack of fuel. If it were that simple, all we would have to do is make sure we got the right amount of calories and go. But the body is much more complicated and requires more than just calories in order to sustain life. We need nutrients. Nutrients are classified by carbohydrates, fats, minerals, protein, vitamins, and water. Poor health and even death can result from the lack of required nutrients to the body. We get our nutrition from our diet or the food that we eat.

The first places we tend to think of when we think hunger are of people starving in developing countries. First images that pop up are usually exemplified by areas hit by drought or famine, natural disaster such as earthquake, hurricane or tsunami – where food won’t grow due to barren soils or lack or sufficient rainfall or the infrastructure of the city or country has been so damaged that food resources have run out or are drastically low. In either case the lack of food is the common denominator. The results from these types of incidents are tragic; more often than not resulting in starvation and malnutrition.

Globally the cause of hunger is poverty. One thing that differentiates American poverty from poverty in developing countries is that our country has very robust entitlement programs. The reality is that life for many Americans would be very similar to the realities faced by developing countries starving if it were not for SNAP, WIC and the Free Lunch Program. The accessibility of these entitlement programs do not preclude individuals from undernourishment and diet related illness though. Food insecurity or the lack of access to healthy foods is a issue that affects families in Jackson Ward Richmond Virginia and in Bangladesh, India. One may live in a city without any grocery stores and only convenience stores that sell processed foods or fast food restaurants while the other lives in a rural area that is plagued by drought or famine. The end result is the same; poor nutrition, malnutrition and lack of real food. The only difference is the proportions of the population having difficulty finding fresh and affordable health food.

What are the side effects of lack of healthy affordable food? The Virginia Dept of Health identified Richmond VA as having one of the highest diabetes mortality rates in the state and was highlighted as 2nd highest obesity rate in 2012. Poor nutrition leads to diet related illnesses such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease but as stated earlier not only does poor nutrition affect the body – it also affects the mind. Poor nutrition can also result in depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and OCD. Poor nutrition also affects ones ability to think – slowing down the cognition and mental agility and ability to learn. The combination of diet related physical illness and mental disorders are a powerful combination when considering who is hungry in Richmond Virginia and where they live at in our city,

Studies show that eating more fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of chronic lifestyle diseases. The Center for disease control advocates the support and promotion of community gardens as a strategy to increase fruit and vegetable production. Evaluations of gardening programs show that participants report higher consumption of vegetables than non-gardeners.

Who is Hungry in Richmond Virginia

The City of Richmond currently has an official poverty rate of 25.3% that is nearly twice the national average and nearly two-and-a-half times the statewide poverty rate. 60% of Richmond’s poor is African American, 8% is Latino, 23% is white. 30% are children, 58% are female and 7% are senior citizens.

The great majority of Richmond’s poor live in the East End or Southside. Richmond has the largest concentration of public housing south of NYC. Half of the cities population lives in US Census tracts with poverty rates that exceed 35%. North of the James River, all census tracts with a poverty population of at least 35% are located east of the Boulevard; south of the James, all such tracts are located south and east of the Midlothian Turnpike. The Council districts with the most poor residents living in highly concentrated poverty areas are the 6th (Gateway; roughly 10,000 persons), the 8th (Southside; about 4,000 persons) and the 7 (East End/Church Hill: roughly 4,000 persons)

16,000 students received free or reduced lunch in RVA in 2010. Richmond currently does not have a mandate for whole foods in public schools, and school kitchens do not cook food they reheat it. As a result the quality is not optimal.

The USDA designated 12 food deserts in the city of Richmond majority of which are located in Southside and the East End. Neighborhoods that are considered (or parts of which are considered) food deserts in Richmond VA:

East End: Highland Park, Gilpin, Whitcomb, Eastview, Fairfield, Upper Shockoe Valley, Mosby, Brauers, Creighton, Woodville and Fulton.

North of the River: Randolph, Maymont

South of the River: Swansboro, Blackwell, Oak Grove, Reedy Creek, Swansboro West, Belt Center, Broad Rock, McGuire, Cofer, Midlothian, Broad Rock Sports Complex, South Garden, Woodhaven, Southwood, McGuire Manor, Windsor, Davee Gardens, Jeff Davis, Hickory Hill, Cherry Gardens, Cullenwood, Deerbourne, Walmsley, Brookhaven Farms, Fawnbrook, Belmont Woods, Brookbury, Piney Knolls

SNAP reports for Jan 2013 indicate 54,000 families on SNAP benefits alone. $7.6 million was spent in SNAP benefits within the city limits of Richmond Virginia by itself not including Chesterfield or Henrico. The amount monthly for a household of 1 maximum is 200 and a household of two is 367 maximum. The average that can be spent per day on SNAP is 6.70 per person per day in order to make it through the entire month. The program stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program. However for many individuals it is the primary nutritional assistance program as it is the only means by which they eat everyday.

The combination of SNAP and living in a food desert is tremendous. In Carytown there are 4 major grocery stores within walking distance of each other, Martins, Elwood Thompsons, Fresh Market and Food Lion. However on Chamberlayne Avenue the closest is over a mile away and in Henrico County. Stores in food deserts are not known for the diversity of their meals, primarily featuring processed foods, high sugar, corn syrup and fructose content. processed foods tend to have an inferior nutritional profile compared to whole, fresh foods, regarding content of both sugar and high GI starches, potassium/sodium, vitamins, fiber, and of intact, unoxidized (essential) fatty acids. In addition, processed foods often contain potentially harmful substances such as oxidized fats and trans fatty acids. So as a result one may be able to purchase food that is edible and may feel full but you have not met the nutritional requirements to maintain optimal health. If you aren’t meeting your needs nutritionally you are malnourished or undernourished and if this reality is maintained longitudinally you fall victim to diet related illness both physically and mentally.

What is Being Done to Address Hunger in the City

There are a number of agencies that operate under the VA FOOD BANK – they have a hotline to connect individuals to food. However even the food bank deals with shortages of fresh healthy unprocessed foods. They link with local farmers to get fresh veggies from them as well.

Local farmers markets such as the Richmond Noir Market accept SNAP benefits. The SOJ Farmers Market is currently developing SNAP acceptance capability and you can use SNAP benefits at 17th Street Farmers Market. The Noir Market is located in the East End, SOJ on Southside and 17th Street is in Shockoe Bottom. The Farm to Family Bus also accepts SNAP benefits.

Urban and Peri Urban agriculture efforts are currently being developed to address lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts. Community groups such as NRC and Tricycle Gardens are working to institute fresh veggies at corner stores in food deserts to address food insecurity. Shalom Farms brings veggies boxes to communities such as hillside court. McDonough Community Garden, Swansboro Community Gardens and Tricycle Gardens offer garden plots and donate produce to food banks and shelters.

The VA cooperative Extension is working on implementing garden boxes in Mosby Court. They are also offering nutrition education classes in the East End.

RPS just received a USDA grant to plan for fresh local foods to be included in school lunches. The grant was a planning grant.

There are proposals to have DSS develop an urban farm to re-introduce clients to veggies and fruits that will also include culinary arts classes.

City of Richmond allowed for vacant lots to be converted to community gardens to increase food security. There are 5 gardens up and running as of today.

As said earlier the conversation of who is hungry is really on of who is poor. You have to address both issues but the latter being the most important. You can’t get rid of hunger without getting rid of poverty – less one is more concerned with simply making poverty comfortable. Charity is unsustainable. Low income communities have to be cultivated into resilient self sufficient communities and there must be re-education around nutrition and healthy eating practices because communities have gone so long without access and have been reliant on processed foods that many of the culinary art skills have been loss or have regressed. Urban and peri- agriculture is a solution; increased access to farmers markets is another, Entrepreneurial urban agriculture has the capacity to empower thousands within the city by addressing food insecurity and providing economic empowerment opportunity through cultivation of a sustainable local food system.

What More Can Be Done?

A sustainable local food system exists when the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and food-related items takes place within a relatively short distance (within the city, county, region or state) and the practices that are involved produce food that is healthy for consumption, avoids negative environmental impact, provides living wage to workers and most of all enhances the community as a whole. Our solution to the problem of food insecurity for low income communities is to create employee owned urban farms and farmers markets in areas designated as food deserts, partner these new entities with institutions that traditionally support communities that suffer from chronic economic distress and offer employment opportunities and educational assistance to cultivate self sufficiency and community empowerment. The city of Richmond Food Policy Task Force reports that there are thousands of derelict buildings and empty lots throughout the city and has made many of them accessible via the Richmond Grows Gardens program that allows for a nominal fee the usage of vacant lots for urban agriculture purposes. Veritably; a great deal of these properties are found within the 12 census tracts designated by the USDA as food deserts. Developing urban gardens and farmers markets will not only have economic benefits, they will also add beauty to the urban landscape and create safer & healthier communities for the city.