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Saturday, June 22, 2024

'Taking care of each other:' Madison communities respond to food insecurity in the age of COVID

You’re at the local grocery store when you realize that the only fruits and vegetables available are on a small display shelf. There’s just a few apples, oranges and tomatoes, all of which are overpriced and already overripe. The rest of the shelves are filled with processed foods. You sigh, grab the packages that look the healthiest and make your way to the checkout line.

The city of Madison is home to one of the strongest farm-to-table movements in the country. However, even before COVID-19, while some had access to locally grown foods, many residents struggled to put healthy food on their table. A lack of fresh produce is a common reality in some Madison neighborhoods, particularly in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic statuses. 

According to the USDA, there are seven areas labeled “food deserts” in Madison, although that is a term that some people in the food justice community find stigmatizing of the neighborhood, and prefer to use the term “food apartheid.” This means that a third of the people living in these areas are more than a mile away from a grocery store or healthy food retail outlet. Most of them are located on the South side of the city. The absence of fresh food retail space or affordable options in these areas makes it that much more difficult for people to access nutritious foods.

Sarah Karlson is the Farm and Education manager at Badger Rock, one of Madison’s community organizations that works to fill the gap in providing fresh produce to its surrounding residents and families. Located on the south side of Madison, Badger Rock is home to a Neighborhood Center, an urban production and education farm, a community garden and Badger Rock Middle School. Karlson is a huge advocate for food sovereignty, which is defined by the USDA as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

Before Badger Rock, the neighborhood lacked a location for community gathering and green spaces. To help with increased food insecurity from COVID-19, Badger Rock started a food pantry where they distribute what they grow as well as food donated by the Community Action Coalition and Second Harvest pantries. 

Karlson describes Badger Rock as a “POC-forward space,” with 80% of its student population coming from the surrounding neighborhood. Its program is a part of Rooted, a non-profit organization that works to create healthier neighborhoods in Madison. 

“The root of everything we do is relationship-building,” Karlson said. “And the tools that we use to do that are food.”

Similarly, on the UW-Madison campus, F.H. King promotes sustainable agriculture and has gained a focus on food justice in the past few years. The student-led organization runs a garden plot at the Eagle Heights Garden where they use environmentally friendly methods to grow a variety of organic fruits, vegetables and other plants. 

The main goal of the club is to educate people on sustainability, F.H. King Outreach Director Cooper Hamilton said. “And [to get] free, fresh produce directly to students.”

The organization receives its funding from the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), UW-Madison’s student government, to distribute their produce in their weekly Harvest Handouts  throughout their growing season. Their largest handout gave produce to roughly 200 people, and Hamilton believes that for some of them, this was their only access to fresh produce that week. 

“We don’t discriminate on who comes to get it. If an adult passes by the stand, we’ll hand it out to them,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton stated that one reason organizations like F.H. King are so important is because there aren’t any truly affordable and convenient grocery stores on or near campus. Additionally, he noted that the pandemic has “thrown a wrench into food insecurity on campus.”

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As dining halls are closed this semester for students who don’t live in residence halls, options for fresh food near campus for students with a tight budget are even more limited. Another problem is that new students, particularly low-income students, are not informed of food justice organizations on campus such as F.H. King as well as Slow Food UW, the Open Seat and Food Recovery Network, and often don’t realize that they have access to these resources. 

Hamilton explained, “You kind of have to be in the inner circle to know about programs that provide free or inexpensive food.”

Currently, F.H. King is working with UW housing to improve student access to produce by installing tower gardens outside of dorms. Tower gardens are about 6 feet tall, use efficient aeroponic water filtration systems and mainly grow leafy greens. According to Hamilton, a single tower garden can provide enough produce to feed a dozen people for a week.

In addition to Rooted programs like Badger Rock in the Madison community and student organizations including F.H. King on campus, the Goodman Community Center on the near East side and the REAP food group all work to put fresh food in the hands of community members that need it most. 

Still, while these Madison organizations work to combat food insecurity, the deeper causes of these issues have only been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

Stephen Ventura, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, has focused his studies on fixing the systemic issues which lead to food insecurity. Ventura started the Community and Regional Food Systems Project, which investigated food insecurity issues in eight different cities in the United States. From this, he's concluded that food justice and racial justice are deeply entwined, and stem from the same social issues.

“They are a challenge of poverty and wealth inequity,” Ventura summarized. 

In the 1980s, large grocery chains closed most of their stores within inner cities and expanded in suburban neighborhoods. A study across multiple states found that there were four times as many grocery stores in predominantly white neighborhoods than in predominantly black neighborhoods. In fact, the Black Panthers began in the early 1970s as a food security organization that provided breakfast for schoolchildren in low-income areas in Oakland, CA. 

One of the first urban agriculture programs that combined food and racial justice in the United States was Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI, which lasted from 1993 to 2017. Founder Will Allen bought the last farm left on Milwaukee’s north side, far from any grocery stores and five blocks from a housing project. Growing Power created numerous self-sustaining, community based projects. Ventura described the 2010s as the decade that saw a “huge awakening” in both urban agriculture practice and broader awareness of food justice issues.

Many food justice programs today, including Badger Rock which began in 2012, are based on Growing Power’s original model.

Due to the pandemic, Ventura says more people are becoming aware of the fragility of our food system and the value of local food chains. Increasingly, people are seeing how this fragility hurts already disadvantaged segments of society. 

According to Feeding America, the same people who are the most at risk for serious health complications with COVID-19 — such as seniors, people with chronic illnesses and people of color — will also face the largest economic consequences of the pandemic. Pantries received increased funding from USDA’s CARE Act passed in April, which put $850 million towards food pantries. Yet, according to Ventura, this will not be enough to help these vulnerable populations.

Experts and activists have different ideas on how to battle this increased food insecurity. Some food justice activists argue for federal subsidies to promote retail in underserved areas and increase SNAP benefits targeted for retailers and distributors to make it easier to sell healthy foods. Simply stated, more healthy foods should be subsidized instead of the unhealthy ones that are currently subsidized.

Ventura, on the other hand, thinks that there should be more local control of food systems.

In October, he said that the federal government “isn’t very good at supporting poor people.”

The Trump administration had tried to reduce people’s SNAP and EBT program eligibility while supporting huge commodity farmers, which made it even more difficult for local diversified farmers. To combat this, Ventura believes in creating more regional food policy councils such as the Dane County Food Council to help “deal with federal deficiencies” and supports food systems at every level, from local farmers to distribution. The agricultural systems in place should also be incentivized to “produce more and healthier food instead of commodity crops such as corn, soy, and lots and lots of milk,” he said.

Two days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his administration expanded pandemic-EBT and SNAP benefits by 15% by providing more money for low-income families to make up for children missing meals due to schools being closed during the pandemic.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, food justice programs provide more services and the federal government implemented relief programs. Still, a study from Northwestern estimates that food insecurity has more than doubled in the United States in 2020. Giving support to local food justice programs, like Badger Rock and F.H. King, may be one of the best ways to help those who are in need of nutritious food.

“We need more people understanding and involved in food distribution,” Ventura said. “People have a tendency to take care of each other.” 

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