The Grand Rapids foodshed is changing and developing in fantastic ways, but for the approximately 13% of Kent County residents who experience food insecurity, the doings at the new Downtown Market are of little interest. That's because affordable is more critical than fresh, local, or organic to them.
Hunger Action Week is a local effort to address the issues of food insecurity and educate people about hunger in West Michigan. Some of the scheduled events include a SNAP challenge meant to get people to think how would feed themselves or their families on the SNAP allotment of $31.50 per person per week, a poverty simulation exercise, healthy food cook-off between local chefs, and multiple showings of A Place at the Table, a documentary on hunger starring Jeff Bridges.
While I think learning about hunger in our area is a very good thing and many people could benefit from the realization that their circumstances are not everyone's circumstances, I do have problems with both the SNAP food stamp program and even well meaning, enthusiastically staffed programs like Kids' Food Basket. Since the government now distributes its food benefits via a swipeable Bridge Card, committing fraud is pretty easy and the government has little influence over which foods households purchase with that money. Cards do offer both more dignity and autonomy to the process at the individual level, but much of the money our government spends on "food" goes to complete garbage - high sugar, low nutrition fast foods that ensure that while kids might not feel hungry, they are nonetheless being undernourished and their bodies are not receiving enough nutrients to grow and develop properly. I have donated to Kids Food Basket before and the suppers they send home are easier to transport than they are to digest. Juice boxes? Sugar. Peanut butter sandwiches? Sugar. Trail mix? Sugar. Apple? Natural sugar. I know Kids Food Basket chooses to send home a meal the organization believes kids will eat of their own accord, but this is not a meal I'd want my child to eat every night. The body turns excess sugar into fat, and childhood obesity in America is very high. More than one out of three kids in America is currently overweight or obese. Many of these kids are the same kids who are in food insecure environments.
Grocery stores also toss a significant amount of unspoiled food in dumpsters rather than give it away. Affording food has become troublesome for many families in the last decade as the price of stables like meat and milk and bread continues to rise along with gas prices, making a trip to the store more expensive all the time. However, if you are carefully shopping and cooking all of your own meals (not to mention gardening or foraging), it is possible to feed a family on a modest food budget. The food won't be exciting or luxurious, but it can be tasty, nutritious and regular. Simple Depression era meals like those featured in Cooking with Clara are easy to make. I baked four loaves of bread using her recipe last weekend, and they were delicious. Since my husband received notice of being laid off in July, we've cut back on any extraneous food expenditures (eating out, buying luxuries like bakery goods, soda, nice cheeses, or any other food I love to buy), but we are still eating foods that are healthy and delicious. I just have to cook or bake much more or pick and can it myself.
Some people resent the paternalism that creeps into discussions about poverty and hunger, but it's already paternalistic to pay for or distribute food - it's based on the assumption that people cannot or will not provide for themselves or their children. I would prefer to see community kitchens arise to eradicate hunger in our neighborhoods. It would be far more feasible to oversee what people are being fed and to make sure the nutritional content was high, and it would bring people together back to a communal table where they could interact with the people around them instead of eating a bagged lunch in front of a television or computer screen. There are plenty of empty storefronts in my area of the city, Creston, and the government's money would be spent employing local people doing hands-on work, it would not be going directly or indirectly to industrial farms, CAFOs, or big food corporations that market crap to kids (and adults).
I know this is a pipe dream - there are too many vested interests in the current state of hunger - but if we are going to talk about what will get people the food they need, I'd love to hear solutions that would help people long term, not meal by meal.
Check out some of the Hunger Action Week offerings. They look very interesting and may inspire meals at your house too.