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Buy Groceries or Pay the Bills: The Choice Behind Food Insecurity

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On May 17, the Columbus Foundation held a day of community conversation, dubbed The Big Table. Around the city, hundreds hosted and participated in these conversations, some open-ended, and some targeting specific issues and ideas relevant to community connectivity and growth. At Columbus Underground, we hosted three of our own Big Table discussions, bringing together neighborhood activists, leaders, decision makers, and stakeholders to get a better understanding of food insecurity, community-police relations, gentrification and economic segregation.

The goal wasn’t to solve each problem in one hour-long talk fueled by donuts and Peanut M&Ms. Rather, it was to get people on all sides of the problem in one room, introduce them, and see what comes of it. And, while each meeting consisted of different people addressing a different problem, a commonality existed among them: everyone gained a new perspective and broadened their network, linking more minds into the city’s collective consciousness.

Food Insecurity

Turns out, it’s hard to get people who are food insecure to come to a talk in the middle of a weekday. The people who were able to rearrange their schedules, take time away from work, and find child care included public and private leaders and partners, as well as participants in neighborhood organizations that address chronic hunger.

Using each of their unique perspectives, they pointed out the opportunities and barriers to accessing healthy, local, and affordable food. Among the biggest contributors was simply the nature of food insecurity, which varies from family to family and relies on a myriad of factors. A person with a fixed budget could be food secure one week, have their car break down, and be food insecure the next. Or, a person could have enough food to last them the month, but it may not have the appropriate quality or nutritional content.

“I think the reason why food insecurity is so complex is because it is so individual for everyone,” said Katie Brokenshire, with Franklinton Community Gardens. “You aren’t food insecure or not. People deal with it in different ways and different spectrums and scales. It’s hard to address something that can mean so many different things to so many different people.”

As individual as it is, it’s also widespread, affecting one in five children in Columbus. Many are stranded in what are referred to as food deserts, or neighborhoods without a grocery store or market. Brokenshire went as far as to call them food swamps, as they tend to have an abundance of convenience marts and fast food restaurants filling in for grocers.

So, if it comes down to saving time and money by stopping at a McDonalds or wrangling the kids for a trip to the Kroger that’s a 20-minute drive away, many choose the former.

Choice isn’t even available to some, because of a lack of transportation. Who, after working a full-time job, has the time for an hour and a half roundtrip bus ride to the store, kids in tow, and the stamina to then cook it and clean up? If that time does exist, another problem that came up in the Big Table talk was nonfunctioning appliances, including refrigerators that are too small and stoves with only one working burner.

Some neighborhoods use produce giveaways and other supportive measures to give hungry residents a nearby option, but often those are limited to people with a certain zip code.

Sherri Sims, from Hot Chicken Takeover, described the business’ own contribution. As a Fair Chance employer, HCT has employees who absolutely need the free meal they get, and who wait until 3 p.m. every day to get it. Knowing that people “can’t live on chicken alone,” the restaurant has begun purchasing locally sourced eggs and produce to provide a healthy breakfast to hungry workers.

A big player in ending food insecurity is still a work in progress — the Local Food Action Plan. First launched in 2014, it has four goals, with 27 action steps and a 12-member board. It’ll work to connect regional organizations with smaller neighborhood ones, applying an individualistic model to an entire county. As Councilmember Priscilla Tyson and Columbus Public Health’s Healthy Food Access Program Manager Cheryl Graffagnino describes it, the Local Food Action Plan is also aware of the shortcomings of our food and agricultural system at-large.

“We actually don’t produce enough edible fruits and vegetables in this country for every man, woman and child to eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day,” Graffagnino said. “We put a lot of our agricultural efforts into other products that aren’t necessarily food for human consumption.”

To address this takes institutional economic drivers. Joe Brown, Columbus City Schools Food Service Director, is affecting the local food market through the district’s implemented “Ohio Days: My Plate, My State” program. It brings healthy, local food into schools one day each month. This month, Brown placed an order from a Circleville strawberry purveyor to provide fresh strawberries to CCS’ 50,000 students.

“That’s the kind of thing that moves markets,” Graffagnino said. “Large institutions are starting to embrace this concept. Joe can get distributors to work harder with local producers than I could ever hope to do, because I can’t buy five thousand pounds of strawberries, but he can. So, it makes a huge difference, and this partner commitment is a lever puller — it changes processes.”

CU’s food insecurity Big Table conversation, in a way, became a small-scale version of this Local Food Action Plan. It connected the big public players from city council, Columbus Public Health and Columbus City Schools, with neighborhood foot soldiers from Franklinton Community Gardens and Local Matters, as well as private partners, like Hot Chicken Takeover and A&R Creative Group. Together they collaborated and brainstormed ways to move forward and answer the ongoing question asked most recently by Graffagnino:

“How do we create systems, build processes, leverage resources so that those that are there on the ground, serving families — while we’re busy changing the world, while we’re trying to get to that vision where everybody has access to food — how do we keep supporting and building the capacity of those organizations to meet the needs of the individual residents in the community?”

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