Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Closing the Food Gap

Earlier this year, I read "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the table in the Land of Plenty" by Mark Winne. If you have been following my blog this year, you may recall me reposting an interview Mark had with Parke Wilde of the US Food Policy Blog. I finished reading the book in May but it stirred so much in me that it's taken this long to write about it.

It is easy to tell people what we (or science) think they should be eating, but what is often overlooked is the reality people live in that hinder them from actually applying these recommendations to their lives. In particular, limited income areas are often at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing healthy food. In many cases, the supermarkets in their communities --if existent-- have a lower quality selection and higher prices. Also, many of us take for granted that we have vehicles to get us to grocery stores, farmer's markets and warehouse clubs. And the foods offered through food banks and pantries are most commonly of poor nutritional quality. The food system is so complex that even if people have the ability to get healthy food, they may lack the resources to prepare and consume it. Furthermore, lower-income communities are the ones most struck by lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There is more to this disparity than calories in/calories out, or eating the "wrong foods".

Yet, what do I know? I didn't know hardship growing up. Although my parents came from humble backgrounds, they were able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings that kept us from ever really knowing want. Even during hard financial times (because we have gone through those), we were at a greater advantage than others because we still had a car, a nice home to live in, and staying at home afforded me to prepare foods from scratch. This year, I even had a small garden! I am an outsider. I hadn't even lived here a year, although my husband and I decided a long time ago we'd come here because we care about the city. Yet what do I know? Then I read the following:

"I do not feel that these facts negate my involvement or those of other privileged people in the long-running campaign to end hunger and poverty. Yes, I am privileged. Yet I have chosen to regard that privilege as a gift that I will share as best I can until it loses value or is no longer needed. And as as I use the talents God gave me--carefully honed as they were by education, opportunity, and an upper-middle-class upbringing--to make the lives of others at least a little better, I will pave the way for, make way for, and get out of the way of those whose voices more genuinely call out for change than mine ever could."(p.191)

Although I learned a lot from his experiences and insights, this phrase resonated so much to me. It reminded me why I pursued a degree in public health and why we moved here in the first place. I am so grateful for this book and its timing and today I had the opportunity to thank Mark Winne -- in person.

Last week, I found out that he was coming to speak to the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition. Although I had learned of the coalition this past April, I have waited on other life events to take part in it, not knowing what kind of commitment I can provide at this time. So when I heard of this event, I decided now was as good a time as any.

In addition to thanking Mark Winne in person, I was able to learn what is happening in Cleveland. There were people from all sorts of organizations, from grassroots to government. It dawned on me when I got there that I knew n-o-b-o-d-y and I didn't come representing any organization. I was totally on my own. So I signed in, got my bagel, and sat next to someone. By the end of the program, I didn't feel like an outsider anymore. There were people I wanted to talk to to follow up on what they mentioned during the session. In one of my conversations, I even found out about Ohio City Bicycle Co-op, where I will certainly take my bike to get it back in working order.

One of my assignments in graduate school was to prepare a grant proposal. My group proposed forming a coalition for the health district we were partnering with. Although our presentations all took place in the classroom, several public health figures were there as the panel for us to present with. Our idea of forming a coalition was not favorably seen upon and we were grilled for our suggestion. Certainly not all coalitions work out, but when they do work out, much more can be accomplished than all the initiatives working on their own. It also gives "little people" like me an opportunity to contribute. And it appears that the coalition I saw today is quite alive and well.

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