During high school summer vacations, I worked in a gift catalogue warehouse. I loved climbing up the racks to pull inventory off the shelves and then packing them in boxes. The machine that filled the boxes' empty space with peanuts was particularly fun. I couldn’t have made more than $8/hour, but as a high school kid this was great. I loved the organization of the work flow and the sense of accomplishment when the UPS man came everyday to ship off our hard work.
The warehouse was in an industrial park just outside DC, on the other side of the Potomac River from Anacostia. There were no grocery stores, cafes or even food trucks. If you wanted lunch, you either had to bring it from home or rely on the vending machine in the staff lunchroom. I was lucky… I came from a home where dinner was cooked every night, and groceries were bought every week. I had access to a full refrigerator every morning to make a full meal with two mid-day snacks.
For my colleagues, this was less than ideal. The warehouse manager was an older man, in his late 50s or 60s. He had been with the company for years and his wife packed his lunch every day. The sticking memory for me was a big, black woman. She had 5 kids at home and a husband who worked a similar blue collar job. Though I had little concept of this at the time, it’s hard to imagine she made more than $12/hour. A fine wage for a single person, just getting her start in the world. But for a 40-something woman with significant responsibilities at home, this would barely cover the rent, much less put a satisfying, warm meal on the table.
Every day at lunch, I would pull out my bag, brimming with delectable treats. And she would slip 2 quarters into the vending machine for a packet of peanut butter crackers. I had no concept of hunger, but I knew the basics of a healthy diet. And as I watched her waddle around the warehouse, I would think that for the same 50 cents, she could get an apple - a more healthy choice for her money.
But if you’re hungry, you’re not thinking about which choice is healthier. You’re thinking about which choice will ease the hunger pangs a little longer. I would have made the same choice. I was too ashamed to ask more about her home-life. As much as I enjoyed working with her, I was uncomfortable with the disparities of our “financial realities” (a term I co-opted from business school).
After I graduated from cooking school, I started teaching cooking classes to low-income families in danger of hunger and malnutrition as part of Share Our Strength’s direct service program Operations Frontline (now Cooking Matters). My former colleague would have been an ideal candidate for this program.
I was teaching a group of women originally from the Caribbean. I had heard rice and beans were popular in their culture. So I pulled out a New Orleans cookbook, found a great recipe and then adapted it to be healthier and more economical. The class was a flop! My version of stewed beans over a bed of rice was night and day away from their tradition of rice cooked together with beans. The message of adapting recipes was lost. (I’m sure you saw that coming)
Twenty-five years after my first encounter with food security and hunger, these challenges still plague families across the country. But as I’ve learned over the years, the issues are complex. They range from access to affordable, healthy choices to understanding the needs and traditions of the local communities to education.
I still don’t know the answer.
Two people working on solutions in Massachusetts are Dave Jackson and Glynn Lloyd.
Dave owns and manages Enterprise Farm in Western Massachusetts. He primarily sells his organic produce through his farm-stand and CSA subscriptions. This year, he’s starting something new. He purchased an old school bus which he retrofitted with display shelves. Throughout the growing season he will drive his bus around the Boston-area food deserts selling his impeccably fresh produce at discounted prices to people who may not otherwise have access.
Glynn tackles the issues from both educational and access perspectives. Having grown up in the underserved neighborhood of Roxbury, he understands the needs and traditions of this community. His first company, City Fresh Foods, is a leading meal delivery food service provider in the Metropolitan Boston Area. They serve meals to children enrolled in child care, school students, guests in various residential programs and homebound elders. Based in the neighborhood where Glynn grew up, he employs people from the community – not only giving them a good job, but also educating them in how healthy, affordable food is prepared.
Glynn’s second business, City Growers, is creating access to fresh food by converting inner-city brown spaces into viable green spaces that grow produce to be distributed within the community.
Who are the food-heroes in your community?