by Jennifer Giovanniello
Food insecurity is a complex problem, and it is just as connected to environmental issues as it is to social ones. Many lower-income sections of cities are food deserts, and certain areas in Easton are no exception. Though there are food options in food deserts, they lack grocery stores within walking distance and don’t have corner stores that serve fresh produce or any variety of healthy options. Even with public transportation, grocery shopping is a challenge, with time-consuming trips that only allow customers to carry a few bags of food home.
Gleaning produce from local community gardens or farms… helps reduce food waste.
Another factor is the affordability of higher-quality food items—they tend to be more expensive than less-healthy options. This, combined with the factor that parents will want to buy food for their families that they know that their children will eat, might make parents more inclined to buy less healthy, cheaper options more frequently (especially if those options are available at corner stores within walking distance of neighborhoods). All these factors are obstacles to food security, several tenets of which (according to Ryerson University’s Center for Studies in Food Security’s five criteria for food security) involve availability (having enough food for a given community at all times), accessibility (proximal food at affordable costs), and adequacy (having access to healthy food produced sustainably).
One way that we can begin to address the issue of food insecurity is by working to reduce another pre-existing environmental problem: food waste. According to the USDA, America wastes 30-40% of the food in its food system. Much of this massive amount of food is wasted not because it fails to meet food safety standards before it goes to supermarkets, but because much of the food that we as consumers buy is discarded. Either we don’t eat everything on our plates, or food spoils before we have time to prepare and eat it. In the case of produce, food waste is so prevalent because the fruits and vegetables that don’t look aesthetically appealing to customers are discarded by farms as unmarketable. Such foods (usually oddly shaped fruits and vegetables), have become the cornerstone of ‘ugly food markets’—a systemic response to this issue. Movements such as these that sell or donate fresh produce that grocery stores wouldn’t accept—but still meet acceptable food safety standards—could be an excellent way to reduce food waste and get more healthy food into more communities in general.
Another contributor to food waste can be loss of produce on farms or community gardens, especially if those farms are smaller-scale and understaffed, making it more difficult for them to keep up with the harvest season. When farms or community gardens have produce that is about to go overripe, outside community gleaning programs (such as Nancy Walters’ gleaning program through the Easton Hunger Coalition) can help by collecting produce that would otherwise go to waste and redirecting it to food pantries. Not only does this reduce the amount of energy lost during farm production, but it also gives food pantry visitors access to fresh produce, which is normally rare.
In Easton, there are certain movements that contribute to added nutrition in food pantries and in food deserts, such as The Vegetables in the Community (ViC) program and the Eastern Urban Farm. These movements should definitely be reproduced in other areas. The ViC program distributes produce in the form of a pay-as-you-can vegetable stand during the summer in a West Ward food desert, offering more affordable and healthy options to the neighborhood. Most of the produce (which comes from the Easton Urban Farm and the Lafayette College farm) is harvested with the purpose of going directly to the ViC stand, but some of it is also gleaned from local community gardens.
Places like the Easton Urban Farm sometimes donate its surplus produce to the food pantry at the Easton Area Neighborhood Center next door. Gleaning produce from local community gardens or farms, whether to redirect it to stands like ViC’s or to food pantries, as the Easton Urban Farm and the Easton Hunger Coalition do, helps reduce food waste while improving food security. As long as the produce is grown and harvested using food safe practices, families in need gain access to food that is not only economically accessible and nutritionally sound, but also environmentally suitable (because of the reduction in energy expended on transporting food to the community compared to larger national, industrial food systems).
Thus, the benefits to addressing hunger in such ways contribute to aspects of food security while also saving energy by reducing the waste of healthy food. Hunger should be re-envisioned not as a problem of food shortages, but as a problem of inefficient use of energy in our agricultural system. Re-working this system, whether in the form of ugly food markets, or in the form of surplus produce from farms and community gardens to local food pantries, is a key component to better addressing the issue. What is also crucial for the success of such initiatives is the involvement of community members, since these people are in an excellent position to determine what their community needs and how they can support the people around them. Community members can better ensure the sustainability of these sustainable food security initiatives, because they can easily cater directly to their community’s more specific needs, ensuring that their hunger initiatives continue to make an impact.
by Jennifer Giovanniello
Jennifer Giovanniello is a sophomore at Lafayette College double majoring in English and environmental studies. She is president of the Lafayette Food and Farm Co-op and worked for the Vegetables in the Community program in the summer of 2017.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)