A better food system

Partners collaborate to improve awareness.
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Access to healthy food and meeting hunger needs in Kent County are interrelated, deep, wide and complex problems, neither easily nor quickly solved. Illustration by James Heimer

Access to healthy food and meeting hunger needs in Kent County are interrelated, deep, wide and complex problems, neither easily nor quickly solved. But they are problems being addressed head-on by a swath of nonprofits, government entities and convening partners eager to create food systems that are fair and accessible to all.

“When we talk about food insecurity or hunger, we try to look at ways our community members are empowered around food access and good food,” said Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force (ENTF). “We lack ability for people to structure and make choices around how they access food and the types of food they access.”

In layperson’s terms, the struggles revolve around how to get good food and the options when food is available. Are grocery stores accessible in the neighborhood? Do stores offer fruits, vegetables and other healthy options? What foods do pantries offer and is that food healthy? Is the food culturally appropriate for a particular area? Are SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) programs accepted? Is food sourced from local growers, which keep those growers in business and benefits the Michigan economy?

These questions and more are at the forefront of ENTF and its partner organizations. ENTF is a “convening partner,” meaning it doesn’t provide direct services but provides space for those that do to come together and look at how local systems are structured to address the root causes of issues such as hunger and food insecurity (visit entfkent.org). Its “guiding star” is the Good Food Charter, which states, “All Kent County residents are food secure with access to fair, green, affordable and healthy food.”

One of the larger players in the food systems arena is Access of West Michigan, which cultivates system changes to promote a thriving food community for all people. Access’s Good Food Systems initiative addresses food access, health and justice through piloting affordable retail food markets (called Fresh Markets) and vegetable prescription programs at local nonprofits and clinics. In addition, Access houses a Pantry Resource Center network and helps those organizations “move toward more innovative, just and equitable neighborhood-based food solutions” (visit accessofwestmichigan.org).

“We want to leverage solutions that benefit the environment and invest in Michigan’s agriculture sector, which supports small local farms and creates a more resilient economy,” said Emma Garcia, co-director of Access of West Michigan. “We help nonprofits open their own Fresh Market to serve their low-income neighbors by offering them affordable choices.”

Five nonprofit organizations operate affordable retail food markets, which include North Kent Connect, The Other Way Ministries, The Pantry, UCOM and SECOM Resource Center, with Access launching a sixth site this year. The markets accept SNAP and DUFB (dollars spent on Michigan-grown produce are doubled, as in spend $20 get $20) to incentivize users to shop there, as does the Meijer-owned Bridge Street Market, SpartanNash Stores and many local farmers markets.

“Why only have a food pantry, which fits just some of the people served?” asked Garcia. “Some people want a place to source food for themselves that they couldn’t afford in regular stores. We need better and more sustainable ways to get good food into the hands of people who don’t want to use food pantries or a charity food system.”

Kent County has strengths in its food systems, thanks in part to Michigan’s agricultural diversity and creativity.

“Michigan is second in the nation after California in the most diverse crop offerings; we have incredible abundance,” said Garcia. “There is also a lot of innovation in year-round growing, and a lot of farm incentive programs at a state level through the Michigan Good Food Charter.”

Another strong point is the shift by many food resource centers from simply supplying food to offering dignity and healthy choice. Pantries and other food sources have had the hard conversations to move donations away from sweets and pastries from retailers to encouraging donations of proteins and fresh produce.

“This can be a risky conversation for a pantry because so much is structured around charitable giving,” said Randall. “The courage to have these conversations has shifted access to healthy foods, which is important to the overall health of the community.”

Partner organizations also have expanded beyond sharing food to growing their own food and sharing ideas for using that food via cooking and food preservation classes. Urban Roots, UCOM and Our Kitchen Table are prime examples.

Food system change isn’t without struggle. One of the biggest is the stereotypes that go along with food insecurity.

“The assumption is that people who need food support or rely on external supports don’t care about what they eat and are lucky to get what they can,” said Randall. “It’s the mindset that any food is better than no food.”

Garcia agreed. “So many free food sites have operated from the cheap-is-best mentality. But that scarcity mentality keeps them from seeing the value of sourcing local food,” she said.

Change is “about education in food systems overall,” said Christina Swiney, co-director of Access.

Food as medicine

One result of attention to food systems is increased awareness of food as medicine.

“There is an economic impact of poor health on a community,” said Wende Randall of the Essential Needs Task Force. “We are thinking about food as a way of healing our physical and mental health.”

She points to foods used to help ameliorate lead contamination and meals prepared specifically for those going through chemotherapy or radiation that can help negate side effects.

Refresh Now is a food prescription program piloting this summer designed to improve health for those with chronic diseases or associated risk factors such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and major mental health disorders.

Two clinics will prescribe fresh produce and provide vouchers that can be redeemed for fresh fruits and vegetables at any of Access of West Michigan Fresh Markets or participating local grocers. For more information on eligibility and partner sites, visit accessofwestmichigan.org.

“Incorporating food into medical arenas isn’t just for people with certain kinds of insurance or means,” Randall said. “We should view this from the perspective of being for everyone.”

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