Jon-Marc: The Coming Crisis, Our Food and Our Future

The line is at least 40 people deep. It’s 9:30, an hour-and-a-half before the doors open, on a Thursday morning and the scene is as it always is. People of all color and all ages, some with pushcarts, some with walkers, mothers pushing their children in strollers and old men leaning against the wall. They’re here for one reason. It’s the same reason they are here every week, in the cold or the heat, the rain or the snow. They’re hungry. And today is the day the food pantry at the Jewish Community Council on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights is distributing food as it does every Thursday at 11:00am.

As the world’s population grows, and as its food supply becomes more fragile, the issues of “food security” and “food sustainability” will grow as well. The questions of what can be done and, perhaps more importantly, what should be done, seem to be as difficult questions to answer as finding cohesive, coherent, and consistent definitions to the terms themselves. Furthermore, it could be argued, that food security and food sustainability are at odds with the other, that they clash, that they are mutually exclusive terms and that, in order to address one it must be done at the expense of the other.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines food security as“including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” The Agriculture Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis, broadly defines food sustainability as “the stewardship of both natural and human resources.”  In order to get a better understanding of the two ideas, it helps to understand them from a local perspective.

The issue of food security in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, one of the northernmost neighborhoods on the island of Manhattan, is alarming. A 2012 City Harvest Survey states that at least 50% of the total population of Washington Heights experiences some form of low or very low “food security”, defined as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” While there are numerous Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sites in Washington Heights, these do very little by way of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, due to the high cost of shares. Furthermore, a cursory, unscientific inspection of garbage cans as well as the rampant litter in much of the neighborhood points to a community that is buying unhealthy, non-sustainable, non-organic foods in order to save money.

Even so, there seems to be real efforts on the part of many in the community to address many of these issues as well as bring attention to the issue of sustainability. The Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood (JCCWHI) food pantry serves 300 people weekly. When I contacted its director, Miriam Yoles, she was eager to discuss what she called “the plight of the hungry.”

“[Washington  Heights] is changing, this is true, but just because there are more nice restaurants and a coffee shop here and there doesn’t mean there is less need. We constantly struggle to keep up with demand. With the recent cuts in food stamps, we are only going to see need go up” she said in a recent phone interview. “What [congress is] doing affects people, families. We are in one of the most food insecure areas of the city. Taking away the safety net from many will only increase it.”

Indeed, a 2012 study commissioned by City Harvest seems to echo Miriam’s concern. Of those in the emergency food population (EFP), 92% experience low or very low food security.  Not surprisingly, of those 92%, only 13% believe they consume an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables. Specifically, the senior population in Washington Heights, “still encounter barriers at higher rates than the total population and the non-senior population. Some barriers identified are price, poor quality of healthy foods, too far to travel to get healthy foods” according to the study.

A recent foot tour of some Washington Heights’ garbage cans seemed to reinforce the idea of a population concerned with costs at the expense of health (and sustainability). Granted, some of the findings must take into account a society’s preference for unhealthy, sugar laden snacks. But, such preferences do not seem to explain the overwhelming number of wrappers and packaging for unhealthy foods found in garbage cans and on the streets of the neighborhood.

For example, the tunnel that leads from Broadway to the 191 Subway Station in Washington Heights gives insight into what the community at large might be consuming. The tunnel which, by my estimates, is at least 2/10 of a mile long is perennially littered with refuse, and what I found during a midnight stroll was telling.  Wrappers for McDonald’s hamburgers, countless soda cans, half-eaten bags of potato chips, candy bar wrappers, dozens of plastic bags from various unknown bodegas and delis, and even what appeared to be a used condom. What was not seen told me just as much as what was seen. I did not notice any trash from healthier stores or half-eaten apple cores or orange peels. Granted, it would seem to me, people who are more concerned with their health are probably also less likely to litter. However, in my inspection of garbage cans, the results were the same. If neighborhood waste is any indication, it appears that many are eating unhealthy food as a matter of necessity and lack of resources.

In his paper published in May of 2013, “Food Security, Inclusive Growth, Sustainability, and the Post 2015 Development Agenda” Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute states that “approximately 870 million of the world’s poorest people remain under-nourished even today.  Many poor households are already close to the margins, as shown when food riots in 2008 broke out in more than 25 countries in response to spikes in food prices, which had left many people unable to afford basic food staples. (Hanson 3; par. 2)”

In the United States, and specifically in local communities like Washington Heights, these fears are elevated. When asked about Hanson’s paper, and specifically the issue of whether food riots like the ones in 2008 were possible in Washington Heights today, the executive director of another local food pantry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained “Do I think riots will break out? No. Do I think people are growing increasingly frustrated as they work harder and harder for less and less? Yes. Do I think they will resort to drastic actions as resources become more scarce? I don’t know. Probably. What I do know is that we have an increase in our client load, wages are stagnant, people who need food stamps are being denied them. Something must change. I am not sure what can be done about [food sustainability] but I do know the way things are for the poorest in our community cannot be sustained” she said in a recent phone interview.

While CSAs in the neighborhood provide healthy, organic sustainable produce, the cost of membership, otherwise known as shares, for a season is prohibitive (typically $400.00-$600.00 according to for those on a fixed income and/or living at or below the poverty level.  That being so, while typical food pantries and food banks focus on the immediate needs of their clients, CSAs can  focus on sustainable practices as well as giving back to the community in the form of donations of produce to local charities that deal with food security issues.  On their website, Just Food of New York City, which not only organizes CSAs throughout the five boroughs but also advocates for “fresh food for all” and “food justice”, states on their website “Since 1995, Just Food has pioneered sustainable food models, including CSAs, community-run farmers’ markets, and farm-to-food pantry programs. Just Food serves thousands of New Yorkers by forging partnerships between local farms, neighborhood groups, and consumers, and by providing urban communities with a framework for growing, and knowing, healthy food.”

Washington Heights is a vibrant community that is facing many challenges. With its poverty rate far higher (23% according to Community Board 12M) than the national average (15% in 2014, according to the United States Census), it has immediate food security challenges that seemingly supersede food sustainability. Nevertheless, as Miriam states, “We are a community that faces what we need to do and we do it”. I happen to agree. Food security and food sustainability need not be mutually exclusive.

I believe that, with sufficient help, both issues can be addressed simultaneously. Having volunteers plant gardens for the local food banks would be such a proposal. Another idea might be partnering local food banks and social service organizations with local high-schools and universities and, by way of class projects, have them come up with ideas that address both food security and sustainability, and tangibly implementing those ideas. Lack of ingenuity isn’t the problem. After all, Carmen Reyes of the Washington Heights Ecumenical Pantry was recently honored with the Food Bank Borough of Excellence Award for implementing new computer programs that increased the efficiency of the food bank and allowed it to serve 2.5 times as many clients as previously served under the old system, according to Crossroads, the official blog of the Archdiocese of New York. It seems to me, using this ingenuity and applying such innovation to other areas like sustainability is the logical next step.

Working towards food independence, at least partially, for the community at large would also help address both issues. Growing herbs in windows and vegetables in the common outdoor areas of buildings, creating neighborhood programs for sustainability that mimic those of neighborhood watch programs where residents each have a stake and commit their time to taking measurable, sustainable actions that benefit the neighborhood as a whole might be another idea.

Miriam probably said it best: “People want to do something. Sometimes they just need some help doing it”.



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