[Cross posted at DC Food For All]
Food access is a topic that is gaining attention both nationally and locally. A few stories this past week have converged on the topics of food access and children.
The momentum for school gardens and for students to have a better understanding of their relationship to food is building--especially in the nation's capital. The installment of the White House Kitchen Garden almost a year ago is not only the first large-scale garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden during the Second World War, but is being used by Michelle Obama as a platform to engage national dialogue on health, nutrition, and food security. In particular, her focus is on kids: "You can affect children’s behavior so much more easily than you can adults," she said.
In September 2009, Michelle Obama invited students from Bancroft Elementary School to help prepare the garden and plant crops. The positive response the White House has received on this and a gathering of Obama Administration officials last month to discuss their efforts to improve America's food system lead many to be hopeful that "every American child can have access to healthy and affordable food."
With so much rhetoric currently focused on school gardens (spurred on by a recent editorial by Caitline Flanagan criticizing the school garden movement), it is important to remember that food access for children is as much about ensuring kids are eating healthy as it is about ensuring that they are getting enough food. Problems such as child obesity and child hunger both demand attention. They are manifestations of the same, complex and immensely-challenging national problem which allows profit interest to push unhealthy and processed foods to children; contributes to an increasingly demanding lifestyle which makes families pick ease and convenience in food preparation (even when they do find time for a family meal); allows healthier options to cost more, which compels parents on a limited budget to buy food that is more likely to make their children sick; or worse, forces families to choose between paying for housing, energy, medical costs and filling their stomachs.
Before he was elected president, Barack Obama set a goal to end hunger among children in the United States by 2015. Though Michelle Obama's healthy kids initiative has begun to address some of these problems by bringing awareness to child obesity, emphasizing the importance of learning about local and healthy foods at a young age, encouraging improvements to the National School Lunch Program, and fueling momentum behind the school garden movement, it is only a beginning. A recent Washington Post article about child hunger observes that "since his inauguration, Obama has seldom broached the subject. His aides brainstorm weekly with several agencies, but their internal conversations so far have not produced fundamentally new approaches."
In November 2009, a USDA report on U.S. food insecurity found that:
- The number of food-insecure households sharply increased from 13 million in 2007 to a little more than 17 million in 2008
- The increase was proportionally larger for households with children: the prevalence of food insecurity rose from 15.8 percent in 2007 to 21.0 percent in 2008
- The prevalence of very low food security households--defined as "food intake of some household members is reduced, and their normal eating patterns are disrupted"--more than doubled from 1999 to 2008, increasing from 3.1 to 6.7 million
- In 2008, 16.67 million children (22.5 percent) are affected with low or very low food security among members of their household
How are children in DC affected by all of this? On the one hand, there is some progress: DC Council members recently introduced a bill that would, among other things, establish local nutritional standards for school meals, create monetary incentive and funding for a farm-to-school distribution system, and require teaching about the benefits of local foods. However, more than 12 percent of all households in the District were food insecure in 2006-2008. Severe recession and rising home heating costs, coupled with President Obama's proposed funding reduction for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in 2010 (from $5.1 million in 2009 to $3.2 million 2010), and recent cutbacks in affordable housing funding in DC are forcing families to make very difficult decisions about basic living needs. “In DC where 1 in 10 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing, it’s no coincidence that 1 in 8 households reported having trouble putting food on the table in 2008. Hunger in DC has likely become worse since then, as the recession pushed unemployment to an all-time high in 2009,” a recent DC Fiscal Policy Institute report states.
Like other social issues, food insecurity is intricately tied with other problems--such as poverty, poor nutritional education, and economic stratification--and are results of competing political, social and economic interests. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of hunger and malnutrition, which can have lasting damages on their health and development. Michelle Obama's focus on food access for children is a good start, but food security for children is far more challenging than just any one course of action (such as additional funding to food programs). Awareness and activism needs to occur at every level between national policy and community action. Though this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are some ways we as a community can begin to affect change:
- Hold President Obama to his goal of ending child hunger
- Raise local and national awareness on food security and food access through dialogue, forums, letter-writing to Congressmen, blogging, and other forms of online and offline social media
- Volunteer with this year’s DC homeless count on January 27, 2010, which will be especially important because the Fenty administration hasn’t allocated funds to support homeless services past March 2010
- Support local organizations that provide on-the-ground assistance for the community, as well as empower individuals to help themselves in the long term
- Push for expansion of much-needed low-income programs, such as food stamps
- Look out for each other and for neighbors who may need a little extra help, especially in the summer and winter on days with extreme temperatures
Photo courtesy Brynn Grumstrup Slate