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4 Innovative Community Food Projects Empowering Low-Income Residents

Food

There are many community food organizations working hard to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Through urban farms, school gardens, school lunch programs and more, these groups are alleviating food insecurity and building food justice in America. WhyHunger, which supports community-based organizations that seek solutions to underlying causes of hunger and connect people with quality food, has been documenting these community members' stories through its project, Community Voices.

These projects have been made possible in part through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Food Project, which funds projects to increase food security. Here are four stories of organizations working to empower low-income communities with access to fresh and healthy food:

Community Services Unlimited

Daniella and Irene have both benefited immensely from Community Services Unlimited's programs. Photo credit: David Hanson

Community Services Unlimited (CSU) has been serving South Los Angeles for decades through its food justice efforts. CSU now has a number of programs. The first, From the Ground Up, is a youth training internship developing leaders in food and social justice. Another is Growing Healthy, which works with younger children to teach them nutrition and the basic tenets of food security and food justice. The third program is the Home Garden project, which encourages, educates and provides resources for residents wishing to grow their own food. And lastly, there is the Village Market Place, a social enterprise program that puts all of CSU's other three programs to work in the community.

Daniella, who was raised along with her seven siblings by her dad after her mom walked out on them, has been able to graduate high school and work for CSU in the Village Market Place. This is her third year with CSU. After working in the garden for two years, she now serves at the Village Market Place café. She makes healthy lunches and "produce bags," which are a "sort of week-by-week-purchase program similar to a CSA share, but more conducive to EBT consumers who can’t pay lump sums at the beginning of the growing season, as in the traditional CSA model."

Irene, also one of eight with a single mother, is enrolled in the Village Market Place program, too. She, like Daniella, interned before being hired on. Both young women want to go to college and eventually get out of South Central, but they want to continue to help their community and are grateful to CSU for providing them the opportunity to earn a wage and help their community.

The Ecology Center

David worked his way up from court-mandated volunteer to Farm Fresh Market Manager. Photo credit: David Hanson

Berkeley, California, home to the Ecology Center, does not exactly bring to mind images of poverty and food insecurity. But,"Berkeley has deep pockets of poverty and health disparities," according to Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center. “Part of our Community Food Project grant evaluation work included a 1999 health status report that correlated race and income with health outcomes. To see it on paper and understand that connection was fairly ground-shaking for the community," Bourque said.

So, after more surveys, the Ecology Center found that they needed to place farm stands near regular transit, and the stands needed to be set up with a culturally appropriate context. The center trained local youth like David McClellan to manage the stands so that "the seller matches the buyer, [which] breaks down a common problem in cities like Berkeley where lower-income residents view 'organic farm stands' as elitist and not for them." McClellan didn't know the first thing about farming or healthy food. He regularly ate at (gasp) fast food restaurants.

But that all changed when he was mandated to complete 80 hours of court-ordered service at the Ecology Center. In the three weeks it took for him to complete his hours, in which he scrubbed walls and painted classrooms, he also attended the events at the Ecology Center. HuNia, the Farm Fresh manager, saw his potential and offered him an internship. Farm Fresh Choice, one of the center's programs, "coordinates, markets, staffs and stocks produce stands in Berkeley."

McClellan worked his way up to stand manager and now he manages all three of the stands, picks up the food and handles all of the logistics of the market. He started school at Berkeley City College in 2013, but still manages the market. He said, "Out of high school I just thought I wanted to play football or be a sports agent. But this food thing has come out of nowhere. Now I think about being a nutritionist and teaching other people."

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Fare Start

The goal of the healthy lunch program in schools is to create a sustainable market that supports local farmers and improves school lunch nutrition. Photo credit: David Hanson

Fare Start, a Seattle, Washington nonprofit working to address food security, prepares meals for school lunches, childcare centers and homeless shelters using healthy, fresh and local food. The revenue generated from the contracted meals goes directly towards funding its job training and placement programs. Disadvantaged and homeless men and women and at-risk teens participate in a job training program in Fare Start's kitchen to help place them back in the workforce.

The program, in operation since 1992, has graduated more than 150 students in recent years—80 percent of whom go on to find living-wage employment—and has provided more than 6 million meals to disadvantaged men, women and children. Its success has gone nationwide with the launch of Catalyst Kitchens to bring similar programming to other communities.

This amazing program supports local farmers, offers meaningful work for those without a job and provides children with nutritious food. It's this kind of "full-circle" approach to changing our food system that we so desperately need. The goal of the healthy lunch program in schools is to create a sustainable market that supports local farmers (45 percent of the school lunch food is sourced from Washington farms) and improves school lunch nutrition for 250,000 children.

Athens Land Trust

Athens, GA residents are getting around their antiquated laws on urban farming. Photo credit: David Hanson

The Athens Land Trust has found a way to get around the city's ban on the sale of food grown in residentially zoned areas. This nonprofit in Athens, Georgia has partnered up with a school in Hancock Corridor, a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 57 percent and an unemployment rate of 16 percent. Since it’s a school, the land trust can have a market farm on the spacious, vacant schoolyard.

Four neighborhood residents have the opportunity to participate in a farmer-training program and earn a small wage for their twenty hours of work per week. Twenty more volunteers can each take home a box of produce when they contribute five hours of work per week. The rest of the produce operates as a "u-pick." 

The Athens Land Trust was able to start another garden across town at the Athena Gardens, an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens. The residents share a large backyard and occasionally share meals, such as a spaghetti dinner, where 49 residents shared 65 pounds of greens harvested from the season's first planting. Deborah Collela manages the garden with the help of the maintenance supervisor for the center, Mike, and plenty of eager residents looking to get their hands dirty.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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