Taking action on hunger


Stimulus money might have a chance to stimulate appetites with a series of new grants in New Mexico. New data on poverty and food access suggest, though, it might not be enough to quiet hunger in the West's most food insecure state or elsewhere in the region.

First, the encouraging news. In August, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced $50,000 in Recovery Act money that could make it easier for the 157,000 New Mexicans receiving supplemental nutrition assistance to buy locally-grown foods. The grant pays for a program that offers New Mexicans who use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – the successor to food stamps) cards at farmers markets bonus tokens that essentially double the amount of money they're able to spend. If SNAP users buy $10 worth of fruits and vegetables, for example, they'll get another $10 in tokens, for a total of $20 in farmers market purchasing.

The Santa Fe Farmers Market accepts SNAP cards. New Mexico's program allows food stamp recipients to double their dollars buying produce at such markets. Photo courtesy Flickr user Susan NYC.

The news is timely. September has been designed Hunger Action Awareness Month by Feeding America. The nonprofit bills itself as “the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.” With new reports out that one in seven Americans lived below the poverty line in 2009, the issue of access to food is as pressing as it's ever been, as Feeding America made sure to note. About 14 percent of New Mexico's population, for example, is “food insecure,” Feeding America's Almanac of Hunger and Poverty in America 2010 reports.

With poverty rates remaining high, those numbers aren't likely to quickly change. When they do, will access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably produced food be part of the solution? Will efforts like New Mexico's new grants for SNAP users help?

It's often easier for those of us who don't require assistance to make ends meet to factor environmental and local economic priorities into our economic decision making. For example, I'm happy to say most of the other items in my breakfast today came from nearby farms. Still, the meal was a product of two realities: my relative ability to pay the premium for its ingredients (even if Michael Pollan suggests I might well have happily paid much more for the eggs) and my knowledge of alternatives at my disposal.

Unfortunately, as a story the Associated Press reported Sept. 14 suggests, it's not clear if such alternatives are in reach for many Americans. As the AP story explains, only a tiny portion of Americans eligible for food stamps – less than .01 percent – are using their assistance to purchase groceries at farmers' markets. This remains true even though one in four farmers markets accepts SNAP cards and even with matching programs like New Mexico's. The AP story describes how a farmers market here in Portland has made it easier to make use of SNAP funds at farmers markets, and even how some vendors are contributing to such efforts as well, but it also cites other examples of how shoppers requiring the assistance still don't feel the markets are affordable or accessible.

Despite the new data, this isn't a new problem. In a Mar 2009 story for Annenberg Radio News Jennifer Lauren Lee described how fresh and local food is a luxury many can't afford. Even a special Womens, Infants and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program – which doesn't provide enough assistance for more than a few purchases – can't help if farmers markets aren't accessible.

Lee and other reporters are paying more attention to “food deserts” – huge swaths of cities in which grocery stores with significant (and affordable) produce selections and farmers markets are few and far between. In Oakland, for example, there's hope that a number of new co-ops will fertilize that city's food desert, but, as one KQED blogger recently noted, such efforts don't take root without controversy. Some West Oakland residents worry such stores will plant the seeds for gentrification, while others say the products these co-ops offer are pointless if current residents don't know how to properly prepare them.

 What's at stake here is equal access to the ingredients necessary for health and well-being and quality of life. Those taking action against hunger should include ensuring such access in their efforts.

Lee introduced her piece by quoting a Hollywood Farmers Market shopper who wants his food to “taste like a tomato … to taste like collard greens, to taste like spinach.” Is that so much to ask? Shouldn't everyone have access to food that tastes like food?

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

High Country News Classifieds