To help pay for food, a large percentage of the U.S. population depends on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. At end of the month, low-income families run out of SNAP benefits. They have a food shortage.
They have to shift strategies, and many depend on a neighborhood pantry system.
The pantry system is run by local community centers or churches. The centers accept food items that did not sell in stores — baked goods, desserts, items with a long shelf life – and offer them up to the community. The items can be high-carb, low-nutrition treats. While the pantry system is slowly changing to offer more healthy food, the poor choices of the past have left their mark on eaters. Low-income residents, or those who live in food deserts, where fresh food can be a significant distance away, have embodied a seemingly impossible contradiction. They are obese and hungry at the same time. This happens because of way people eat through the whole month. At the start, they might be able to afford fresh food. By the end of the month, they depend on canned goods from a pantry, fast food, or takeout.
Dwayne Wharton is the director of external affairs at The Food Trust, a non-profit in Philadelphia working for universal access to healthy, affordable food. I asked Wharton what the organization was working on, and he responded with an interwoven set of initiatives. The Food Trust is pushing for policy efforts to protect SNAP, incentivizing purchases in farmers markets, and getting schools and neighborhood stores involved in nutrition education. “You can’t look at them in isolation,” he said when we spoke about these projects.
One problem The Food Trust has been addressing is getting people to use their SNAP benefits for healthy food they can buy at farmer’s markets. If you incentivize it, they will buy it. In Philadelphia, the incentive is called the Philly Food Buck. For every five dollars you spend at the farmers market you get a two-dollar coupon for fresh fruit and vegetables. It breaks down the conception that healthy food is more expensive. It encourages people to to spend their SNAP funds at a farmers’ market. It is simple, and it works. Quoting from stats collected by The Food Trust, eighty-five percent of shoppers at Philadelphia farmers markets said they bought fresh produce using their Food Bucks, with seventy-one percent saying they tried a new fruit or vegetable at the market.
The Food Trust is also working with corner and convenience stores to help owners market healthier items and give those healthy items better shelf placement.
Cross the threshold of any retail store, and you soon realize that everything depends on placement. Shelf space is high-value real estate. To raise profits for their stores, owners know their bottom line depends on placing the high-profit items in plain sight, by the front door or cash register. The beverage industry supports this and offers store owners branded coolers to position the sugary drinks up front. Beverage merchants pay for favorable placement in the glassed-in refrigerator. The battle for beverage and snack real estate is competitive. One way to create better choices in stores, The Food Trust has discovered, is to show up and make a personal connection, offering information, education, and choices.
“It’s hands on and labor intensive from our organization’s perspective,” Dwayne said. “We have a team of associates who work in the community, and they literally walk from store to store and sit down with store owners.” They have conversations about how to be profitable while selling healthy items.
Small stores are packed to the gills with things that don’t expire — not a lot of healthy options. “Our staff works with them to help understand the health impact” of what they stock, Dwayne said. “We help store owners make a profit by adding more fresh food, position water over soda in coolers so that it is more accessible,” and making sure those choices don’t harm profits.
Knowing soft drink distributors and manufacturers give out perks like coolers to display their sugary wares, The Food Trust has taken a page from their playbook and offers store owners baskets for fresh produce, and coolers to display produce, yogurt, and milk. “We’re carving out space where customers can find something healthy,” said Dwayne. It is part of developing a deeper understanding of food, which includes doing cooking demos in the stores and handing out recipe cards. The Food Trust has doctors and physician’s assistants at the back of the store to do medical screenings and talk about health. Customers might see their corner store as a community center, not just a place that carries junk food full of preservatives.
Why do neighborhoods exist with only small convenience stories or fast food places? Why don’t big supermarkets locate in every community?
Big supermarkets avoid developing branch stores in low income communities and communities of color. In dense urban areas, space is at a premium, and large supermarkets need big land parcels and big parking lots. A parking lot is a bad choice, anyway, when many of your customers don’t have a cars, but take the bus. When the accountants at large supermarkets look at their spreadsheets, they do not see enough of a return on their investment from low income communities. So they stay away. It’s easy to understand why that’s bad news. Obesity rates go up in communities that do not have a supermarket. There are higher rates of diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Shoppers who want more choices may take a bus or subway to get to a distant supermarket or they may rely on expensive delivery services. But day to day, it’s easier to walk to a corner convenience store or get take out.
These less-than-healthy choices abound in densely populated urban communities. You have big-box supermarkets shunning urban neighborhoods, reducing the food choices, and you have junk food makers spending ad dollars to trigger residents to buy sugary carbo-crud. Education can break the grip of this vise, but it has to start early.
How do you get a kid to try healthy food if it rarely appears in their neighborhood store? It can take a child ten times of trying a new food to like it. If your family is food-insecure — you can’t be sure when your refrigerator will be full when you will have enough food for dinner — you can’t throw out food ten times to get your kid to like a tomato or melon. That’s where food nutrition education comes in. The Food Trust is working to get the new food on kids’ plates at school and expose them to fresh food there. If they try fresh vegetables in the cafeteria, they might give them a go at home.
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book about food justice, activists, and food innovators. You can follow my progress by signing up for my newsletter. I’ll let you know when the book is ready for publication and you’ll be the first to learn about freebies and discounts. You can follow my Future of Food podcast to meet some of the people in the book, like the education leaders building hundreds of learning gardens to teach kids where their food comes from, and seaweed farmers who are moving kelp to the center of your dinner plate.