Last week, we headed to UVA to hear a lecture by Mark Winne, food activist and author of the book Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Winne pointed out that the vast differences in diet and food available to different populations in the United States reflects the country's huge economic and social disparities. "Food is emblematic," says Winne's website, "of a promise fulfilled for some but falling ever so short for many."
Winne read several stories straight from his book. I was inspired by his analysis of the public transportation in Hartford, CT (where he has spent quite some time advocating for a more equal food distribution system), where he showed that circuitous bus routes contributed to serious diet difficulties for those who had to rely on it for transportation to grocery stores. One woman's weekly trip to the grocery store took three hours round-trip, and she could only take home those items she could carry. In this story and others, Winne emphasized the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of food and diet with every aspect of daily life.
As Shannon mentioned, another Winne term was "Food Deserts" -- places, both urban and rural, where people are required to travel long distances to obtain food. There are currently at least 800 counties in the United States where 100% of the population are required to travel at least 10 miles to reach a grocery store. Many chain grocery stores have moved out of urban areas and into the suburbs, following populations with money to spend.
Those who simply cannot afford to buy food or travel to distant stores often turn to food banks. These are important resources for those who are hungry and in need; but, Winne cautions, we should be working to eliminate the need for these emergency sources of food. He said people often become 'too complacent' in their confidence that they are doing good, without looking at the source of the problem they are solving. "Shouldn't we be thinking about how to empower people to feed themselves?" said Winne. Just in Connecticut, Winne says, the number of food banks went from 4 to 400 during the Reagan administration, illustrating how food difficulties come hand-in-hand with economic ones.
Another concern is the quality of food provided through food banks: how is it produced, distributed and cooked? Winne reminds us to ask if farm workers themselves are paid a living wage -- if not, they themselves will be forced to patronize the food banks they are supplying!
I came out of this lecture motivated to help efforts to make local, organic, whole foods available to everyone in the community. Winne mentioned it's important not to just "preach to the choir," but reach out and try to make a difference in poor communities and those without easy access to resources we may take for granted, such as the farmer's market or our new Whole Foods. When I asked him to comment on blogging and internet use as a means of food activism, he said he believed blogs to be a valuable resource, as long as they are written intelligently and strive to reach out to the community at large. Whether it is through blogging, interacting with the community or volunteering, it is definitely important for us to work to 'close the food gap,' making food available to everyone.