United Way of King County has boldly announced a goal of making King County a hunger free community. The City Council applauds this goal, and on March 15, I was a plenary speaker at a Hunger Action Forum convened by United Way, the Seattle Food Council, and the Meals Partnership Coalition to look at strategies for meeting this goal. On March 19 the Council joined United Way in proclaiming Hunger Awareness Week as part of the campaign.
Fulfilling this commitment will require a sophisticated and complex engagement with the people of our community. It will take resources, understanding, and the will to follow through. Seattle has funded programs to provide food for people who can’t afford to eat as part of our human services budget. Continuing this work and addressing hunger in a more comprehensive way is a critical part of my Local Food Action Initiative, and we have increased our financial and programmatic commitment over the last several years.
The critical step in dealing with hunger is to make linkages between the underlying causes. The reason people don’t have enough to eat is, of course, the direct result of poverty – and there are many causes for poverty, including lack of jobs, lack of education, problems of health and disability, discrimination, and many others. A campaign against hunger is also a campaign against poverty.
But there is still another critical linkage to make, and that is the link between hunger and obesity – both of which are directly connected to poverty and health. Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin – people with limited incomes often wind up eating food that leads to poor nutrition, because what they perceive as cheap food (it may not actually be cheaper, but that is the perception) tends to be high in empty calories and low in the variety of nutrients that lead to good health. Sadly, these dual crises are also linked to a national food policy that has encouraged and subsidized the production of commodity foods – especially corn and other monocultures, which are then translated into the variety of less healthy and less expensive foods that wind up in the low income diet. There are two vicious circles here: one is the link between federal subsidies which lead to less healthy food being cheap, and the other being the link between poverty, cheap food, and obesity and other health problems, which in turn makes it more difficult to get out of poverty. Children who get poor nutrition don’t do as well in school, and adults who are obese and unhealthy have difficulties getting and keeping work. In order to truly end hunger and obesity, we have to break these cycles.
That is a daunting undertaking, and we know that it will take time, energy, and resources to end hunger, obesity, and poverty. But every step in the right direction will help some people, and if we organize ourselves we can create virtuous cycles instead: good food means healthier kids who can do better in school and have a better chance of acquiring the skills to get out of poverty.
So the challenge is multi-tiered. In the short-term, our work must involve feeding the hungry now, by supporting food banks, getting food stamps to more of those eligible, and other steps to address the immediate needs of the hungry. But at the same time, we must ensure that food banks continue to increase their resources of fresh and healthy products, that we increase the number of low income people who can grow their own food, either at p-patches or other places. Finally, we must advance the whole array of other activities that will help to change our food system. These include steps like protecting farmland, promoting farmers markets and getting them equipped to accept food stamps, working to get fresh food available in areas where there are no stores that carry it, setting up learning gardens and community kitchens at our community centers, and providing land for people in the City to organize urban farms (as Seattle has at Marra Farms in South Park, at the community farm launched last year at Rainier Vista, and at our newest farm in Rainier Beach, which will go into production this year). And challenging the federal government to take a new direction in the renewal of the Farm Bill.
We are just beginning to understand all the benefits that the work on local food can bring to our society – a better environment, a stronger economy, a healthier population, and lively and vibrant communities. To foster a hunger free King County, our task is to ensure that those benefits are shared by everyone. United Way has launched the vision – and now we have to do the work to bring it to fruition.