With 30 percent living below the poverty line, Hartford, Connecticut, is nearly the poorest city in the United States according to the 2000 Census. From 1979 until 2003, Mark Winne served as Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a grassroots nonprofit organization “dedicated to fighting hunger and improving nutrition.” This experience, as well as co-founding multiple food policy organizations (including the Community Food Security Coalition) has given Winne a unique, multi-level view of food insecurity.
Our food system today is at an interesting junction: While the organic and local food movements are gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate, hunger, food insecurity and obesity are higher than ever. At IATP’s event “Closing the Food Gap” last night, Winne continually returned to the central question: Where does responsibility lie? With the individual or in the food environments we have created? Winne proclaimed to have “one foot firmly planted in each camp,” despite also being aware that in today’s food environment – especially in low-income communities where healthy food is often scarce – one must be extremely strong, and discerning, to make healthy decisions.
So what changes are necessary to make healthy food more accessible and individuals more prepared to make the decision to eat healthy? Winne listed environmental changes as simple as building more supermarkets, altering bus routes to reach healthy foods, building farmers markets in food-scarce neighborhoods and efforts like community-owned grocery stores like People’s Grocery in West Oakland.
On the individual level, Winne spoke of competing with the barrage of billboards, soda machines and television ads that children are exposed to by including more food education – cooking, preparation and nutrition – in our schools’ curricula. And, on a larger scale, encouraging participation in “food democracy.” As the food industry becomes more centralized, and more powerful, are we truly able to impact what food enters our communities? Yes, Winne admitted, as consumers we are able to vote with our dollars, but we are competing with powerful corporations. Low-income neighborhoods often become overrun with fast food operations while supermarkets are nowhere to be found – what good is a vote when nothing on the ballot is beneficial?
Winne’s answer? Food Policy Councils. Yes, the national fight must continue through avenues like the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, but local change can happen now. State and local policy councils are springing up across the country thanks to Winne’s model of interacting constructively with local and state government to bring about change. Justice, not charity: Individuals, taking responsibility for the environment in which they live, to help bring healthy, sustainable solutions to hunger, and diet-related illness.
For more information, check out Mark Winne’s books Closing the Food Gap and the upcoming Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture.