Swamps, Deserts, and Justice: Food Issues in Middlesex County
I have a new favorite term: “food swamp”.
You may have heard of “food deserts” – neighborhoods lacking super markets or any opportunity to buy fresh, healthy food. Food swamps are neighborhoods with plenty of food – except it’s all crap. Fatty, salty, nearly nutrition-less food churned out from fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
I heard the term last week from Mark Winne, an author and food activist who was the keynote speaker at the Rockfall Foundation’s annual symposium. The charitable organization helps preserve the land of Middlesex County for public use, and saw the topic of hunger and “food security” as an opportunity to re-connect with the county’s agricultural legacy – and address issues forced to the fore by the poor economy. The issue hit home on several fronts. In his welcoming remarks at “The Kate”, Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace said that calls for assistance to the needy have gone up 100% in the last 3 years. Outbreaks of salmonella or listeria from factory farm products are in the headlines. Middlesex Hospital was concerned enough about some children’s lack of nutrition that they co-sponsored the event. “People are on the edge” said Winne. Yet, obesity is on the rise across America, even more so disproportionately among the poor. So why has the demand for food assistance also risen? Winne argues it’s because what we eat or don’t eat is determined by the political influence of large food businesses like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and other members of the “industrial food complex” . Such huge corporations skew the opportunity for what Winne calls “food justice”, where “everybody has enough food to eat, it’s good food, it’s available and affordable.” So then, against such large national (and multi-national) forces, what is the local response? Part of the answer to getting to “food justice” may be cutting out the middleman – the industrial food complex – by bringing more local, unprocessed food to those in need. That requires increased local agriculture and farmer’s markets in impoverished neighborhoods. Connecticut is actually ahead of the curve in many ways, especially in preserving farmland, said Winne. “But also in making sure that farmland is put to work, and not just preserving it for aesthetic reasons.” Nationally, the local food and organic segments are growing. There’s been a 20 per cent growth in farmer’s markets in the past year. Often pictured as just another way for the affluent to get some heirloom-variety of arugula on a leisurely Sunday, organizations like New Haven’s City Seed are trying to bring fresh food to urban areas. The poor, in this case, are the target market. One way to better reach them is to accept the forms of money they use. Izzi Greenberg, director of Middletown’s North End Farmer’s Market said her market accepts EBT, food stamps, and other low-income subsidies. “This is a whole other revenue stream”, said Greenberg. “It is going away from ‘Well, we really don’t want poor people at our market’ to ‘These are people with money to spend and that’s good for our farmers.’ So really kind of flipping that and thinking of it in a new way.” The challenge of bringing rurally grown produce to the urban poor is complex. Winne recalled that Hartford once had 13 chain supermarkets, but now has none. Many might assume “Big Food” has simply abandoned urban areas for no good reason. Not necessarily so. One grocery store owner at the symposium noted that any large business in the inner city is faced with a host of issues, including crime and security. In higher-crime neighborhoods he said, “shrinkage” – losses due to theft and damage – may be twice as high as in suburban stores. Groceries just don’t offer a large enough profit margin for that level of loss. To deal with these issues, Hartford and New Haven have developed “Food Policy Councils”. Will Middlesex County develop something similar? Food for thought.