food on thanksgiving table

Nutrition Insecurity: Local Governments Setting the Table to Feed Their Residents

By Mark Funkhouser

For many of us, the Thanksgiving holiday is all about food and family. But for a growing number of Americans, sitting down to a table brimming with quality comfort food is a luxury.

That’s one of the reasons why in September, President Biden hosted the White House’s first food security conference in 50 years. The Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health was a gathering of people who have experienced hunger and diet-related diseases, as well as elected officials, food activists, farmers, business leaders, and philanthropists, to rally around ending hunger in America by 2030.

Nutrition insecurity focuses on the need for people to access nutritionally adequate food, and to avoid hunger and starvation. The pandemic brought this issue to the forefront as millions of Americans lost their income, sheltered in place, and missed primary meals at school. In response, local governments allocated new federal dollars to food-related programs that will create a stronger safety network, and invest in systems that remain in place indefinitely.

In Sacramento, for example, Patrick Mulvaney, proprietor at Mulvaney’s B&L, and Clay Nutting, owner of Canon, created a program in the early weeks of the pandemic called Family Meals. Their aim was to keep local farmers and suppliers in business, avoid lay-offs at restaurants and feed hungry people by delivering restaurant-prepared meals to needy families. The program caught the eye of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who toured the operation knowing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was looking to partially fund a similar innovative program. 

By April 2020, Great Plates Delivered had launched and it represented a true collaboration between city, state and federal resources. The City of Sacramento used a portion of its CARES Act funding to match state and FEMA resources while the local social service mobility agency, Paratransit, used their PPP loan to keep 120 drivers employed. The agency also developed the logistics to pick up restaurant-prepared meals and deliver them to 1,100 homebound older residents each day.

The program was a huge success. It delivered two million meals to seniors in Sacramento with a $16 million economic impact and 38 million meals were delivered in California. Our project demonstrates that if “you connect the right people to the right food and close the circle, it will address the biggest gap for many of our clients, which is transportation,” Paratransit CEO Tiffani Fink said at the time. “We are really trying to think about the next generation of issues—transportation, food and housing. When you look at the challenges, the three are interconnected.”

Ultimately, the Biden Administration authorized full reimbursement of the Great Plates Delivered program through FEMA, thus allowing Sacramento and other California participating jurisdictions to reauthorize use of the fundings for other COVID-19 response programs.

This is exactly the type of partnership described in the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health that includes investing in community and economic development to increase access to food. Other cities across the country are taking similarly innovative and cross-cutting approaches to address food insecurity (for more examples and details please scroll to the endnotes at the bottom of this article):

      – Montgomery County, Maryland, used American Rescue Plan Act funding to partner with schools to enroll families in the federal food benefit program, SNAP;

      – Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA, has partnered with the Southwest Atlanta Growers Cooperative to source locally grown produce and sell to transit riders at five MARTA stations; and 

      – Columbus, Ohio, created a zoning review process to permit high tunnels, row covers, low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels for fruit and vegetable production during inclement weather on city-owned land bank properties.

 In Sacramento, the demand for the Family Meals program didn’t end just because the spread of the coronavirus has slowed. The program is now funded by local and state dollars and still brings healthy, quality food to the county’s older residents who need it. This is true across the country where cities, counties and partners are still working together with an entrepreneurial spirit to enable access to nutritious food. 

The persistence of these programs is a reminder that access to quality food isn’t just about not going hungry. It’s about raising healthy kids, fending off chronic disease and aging in place gracefully.  As U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak recently told conference goers at the White House, “the government spends more on the maintenance and treatment of diabetes than the entire budget of USDA.”

American Rescue Plan dollars expire in a few years but given the insidiousness of food insecurity, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are two more resources for localities that are tackling this issue. 

My hope is that someday they won’t have to.

Endnotes: Cities taking innovative approaches to solve food insecurity

Atlanta, GA: The Fresh MARTA Market partners with the Southwest Atlanta Growers Cooperative to source locally grown produce and sell to transit riders at five MARTA stations. The one-day per week market provides access to customers that might not have time to attend a traditional farmers market and boost sales for local farmers.

Baltimore, MD: Baltimarket, run by the Baltimore City Health Department, includes a number of community-based food access and food justice programs. One program, the Virtual Supermarket Program, launched in 2010 with 2009 federal stimulus funds, uses online grocery ordering to deliver healthy food to residents in neighborhoods with low vehicle ownership and limited access to healthy food. Residents without computers may order from a local library, senior housing complex or other designated site with help from Neighborhood Food Advocates, community members trained to facilitate locally-led solutions to increase food access.

Columbus, OH: The Civic Agriculture – Growing Food in Columbus program encourages year-round agriculture through their Season Extension Structures. The City created a zoning review process to permit high tunnels, row covers, low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels for fruit and vegetable production during inclement weather on Columbus-owned land bank properties.

Jackson, MS: The Fertile Ground Project was launched in November 2018 following the City of Jackson’s selection as a Bloomberg Philanthropies Art Challenge winner. Jackson, designated as the “fattest city in America in 2017,” proposed the use of public art and engagement to share the complex agricultural history of the region while supporting access to healthier food and lifestyle options. The program incorporates public art and gardens in projects like the Living Room at Galloway that includes a food garden, murals and a landscape art project that opened at Galloway Elementary School in October 2021.

Montgomery County, MD: Montgomery County’s Food Council leveraged a number of partnerships to accelerate implementation of their food security plan during the pandemic. The county allocated $30 million of its American Rescue Plan to address the issue as the number of food insecure residents jumped to ten percent of its population. One key program was to partner with the school districts to enroll families in the SNAP program, the federal food program that had increased benefits to families with children several times during the pandemic. The county set a target to reach60 families in a month; 150 requests were received in the first two days of outreach to families that were eligible but not enrolled.

Washington, D.C.: The District of Columbia’s Food Access Fund is a grant program available to local businesses in wards lacking healthy, affordable food. The program invests in areas where structural racism and disinvestment have discouraged investment in grocery stores and restaurants limiting healthy food access. The grants are used for capital investments including tenant improvements for new buildings or expansions for businesses including fresh food markets, restaurants, and food incubators.

West Sacramento, CA: The West Sacramento Urban Farms include five publicly and privately owned sites that were previously vacant. The farms provide land, tools, infrastructure and mentorship to individuals to support small-scale, urban farming. In partnership with the Center for Land-based Learning, the farms now welcome 600 volunteers per year and grow 25,000 pounds of food in peak harvest seasons that are distributed to residents via farm stands, local schools, food banks and restaurants.

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