Whether you are a mainstream family simply looking to feed a family on a budget or a committed organic food consumer food security is a topic that affects you. Food security is defined as, “(A) state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food” (Google, 2014). The World Health Organization, WHO, held a food summit in 1996 to address the increasing challenge of maintaining a global food supply. Three key concepts were identified that are critical in maintaining food security. They are,
“Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation “(Organization, 2014).
Food democracy activist Vandana Shiva advocates empowering local farmers to maintain heirloom seed stocks and grow indigenous food items as the best way of stabilizing the global food supply. She accuses the big agricultural companies such as Monsanto and DuPont of “biopiracy” because these companies threaten regional bio-diversity by killing off native food species and replacing them with chemical laden, genetically modified generations of food (Kosek, 2013).
In an attempt to assess the food security of my local community I decided to evaluate our food resources within the concept as it is discussed by the WHO. I chose to look at the overall availability of food, usage with regard to having nutritional and safe food, and finally the topic of access. Can people in the community access the food that is available?
In my community of Saratoga Springs, NY food is abundant. Shoppers have a multitude of possibilities. There are five full service grocery stores, a Walmart Supercenter with a full grocery department, and the local Target store has also expanded to include groceries. BJ’s Wholesale Warehouse is available for shoppers who need to purchase bulk items. Healthy Living, a full service organic market opened one year ago and another, Fresh Market, is set to open soon. Four Seasons Natural Foods, located downtown, has been open for over 20 years and is expanding to a new location which will provide more space for their loyal customers to shop in. As it turns out, shoppers have access to a wide array of price points and food choices. Food is definitely available in our community.
The best venue for shopping for healthy food is the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. Held year round, the Farmers’ Market has a variety of vendors who bring everything from organic fruits and vegetables to artisanal cheeses. I connected with the folks from Kilpatrick Family Farm (KFF), located in North Granville, NY. Farmer Mike Kilpatrick is one of the larger organic food producers in the area. His farm provides produce, poultry, and eggs for two local farmer’s markets, the on-site farm stand, a growing CSA, as well as wholesaling to Healthy Living natural supermarket and several farm to table restaurants in the area. KFF grows vegetables year round and is one of the few who can provide fresh organic greens at the farmer’s markets during the winter.
I made arrangements to work with KFF for a Saturday morning market. The load in was a killer. My first task involved a hand truck loaded with several pallets of fresh eggs. I knew this was my make it or break it moment. I dragged the cart up over the ramps spanning the marble steps both outside and inside of the building and couldn’t believe I didn’t lose one egg! We loaded in cases of carrots, beets, potatoes, kale, salad greens, parsnips, rutabaga, as well as a cooler with some chicken parts. The tables were laid out with long wooden planks and covered with burlap sacks. I was handed an apron with my “bank” in it and then we waited.
“Clang, clang!” A cowbell rang and the market officially opened. I wouldn’t exactly call it a stampede, but a crowd of very serious shoppers made their way in and scanned each table for the morning’s offerings. With the very first customer I fell in love with being on the working side of the market. The enthusiasm with which each shopper chose his or her food was exhilarating. Two young boys walked forward with a dollar bill and collectively settled on the perfect sweet potato for their dinner. I watched people of all ages shopping with great purpose. The majority carried their own fabric or straw market bags to organize their purchases.
Photo by Lisa Kosek
The beauty of the five types of both carrots and potatoes, as well as the richly colored purple and red beets is the stuff artists hope to capture. It only took a week to get out the stains under my fingernail beds from the purple carrots, beets, and potatoes. By the end of the day I was joyously exhausted. We celebrated the fact that many of the carrots and potatoes, as well as all of the greens had sold out – less to pack up for the return home.
I returned the following weekend so I could gain perspective as an observer. Julia, the Farmer’s Market administrator was eager to answer my questions. I asked about access to market products for those with financial issues. Signage on the main table indicated that WIC benefits can be used to purchase fruits and vegetable. WIC is the Women, Infants, and Children program run by the USDA to provide funding for food and nutrition education (USDA, 2014). Another benefit program managed by the Department of the Aging provides checks to senior citizens that can be used for produce at the market. Julia also indicated that families and individuals receiving SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can use their electronic benefit transfer cards (EBT) to purchase wooden coins in a variety of denominations for fruits and vegetable. These shoppers can also take advantage of Fresh Connect, a NY state initiative that expands the value of SNAP benefits at participating farmers’ markets.
Photo by Lisa Kosek
I asked Julia if she had any idea how often these benefits are used but she didn’t have any data to work from. She feels that there is more activity within these programs during the summer market. Julia also indicated that she only has the ability to bring materials to the agencies who work with the at risk populations. She feels strongly that it would be a benefit if there was more effort on the other side to encourage at risk shoppers to attend the markets. This gives me great pause for thought. Like most human service agencies a shortage of resources exists and the staff there are focused on fulfilling the basic work load they struggle to complete. It definitely seems that there is a void in educating benefactors of social services about the benefits of eating healthy food as well as the ability to access it through the programs I just mentioned.
Next I approached Patrice, a member of Kilpatrick Family Farm’s CSA. She was willing to tell me about her experiences with community supported agriculture. As a member of the CSA Patrice pays a fixed price at the beginning of the season. These funds, along with the other CSA participants’, are used by the farmer to invest directly in food production. Each week program members are given a designated item that they will receive and then they are able to choose what other items they want depending on their share size. Patrice indicated that she has participated in community supported agriculture since its beginning over a decade ago. She laughed as she explained that in the early days you got whatever the farmer was growing. Sometimes you would get bags of basil dropped off for several weeks in a row. She didn’t know what to do with all of it. At that time she participated to support the local the farmers. Patrice has been part of Kilpatrick Family Farm’s CSA for five or so years. Things are very different because there is much more to choose from. By staying “more in touch with products” and buying from KFF she saves money year round. As Patrice moved on to finish her shopping I noticed more CSA customers arriving to choose their weekly share. Many made sure to get there early enough, sometimes they run out of kale – or so I was told!
Despite the efforts to provide funding and access for those with struggling grocery budgets, many people in the area still are hungry. The other day I noticed a young man and his son walking past my car. I overheard the father explain, “You eat two or three times a day before I eat once”. It struck me as an odd conversation. Nearly a half hour later I saw them return, each of them was carrying a bag of what appeared to be groceries. It finally hit me, they had just come from the neighborhood food pantry. This event has stayed in my mind. It gave a face to many of the people who rely on local food pantries. They look like middle class families or you neighbors.
I decided to call my friend Nancy who volunteers for the St. Clement’s Roman Catholic Church in their food pantry. She agreed to discuss her experiences volunteering. The food pantry is part of St. Clement’s outreach ministry and is open on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week. Nancy typically volunteers once a week and has seen an increased use of the resources available over the past couple of years. Donations come from parishioners and the general public alike. There has been an increased emphasis on providing healthy food resources. Fresh produce grown in the church’s garden is very popular. During the winter months cash donations are used to purchase fruits and veggies from local markets. She also mentioned that the pantry has reorganized to accommodate a growing need for non-food staples such as personal care products such as shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, and laundry soap.
Nancy explained that the financial challenges created by our current economy have forced people who were frequent donors to the pantry to rely on the generosity of others so they can use the pantry for their own needs at this time. A detectable level of embarrassment and self- consciousness exists for many people who come to the food pantry, particularly for new comers. She is certain that pride prevents many people from taking advantage of resources available at the outreach. A photo ID is the only documentation people must provide to receive goods from the pantry. Interviews are held with visitors so the circumstances of their living situations are clear and appropriate food items are handed out. If someone who comes in only has a microwave oven to cook with they are given items that can be prepared without the need of a conventional oven or stove top.
Along with her work at the food pantry, Nancy volunteers once or twice per month at the soup kitchen run by the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (EOC). The EOC receives funding from various grants, including the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, private donations, and fundraising (Council, 2014). The soup kitchen is housed at the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on Circular Street in Saratoga Springs. The mood at the soup kitchen is quite different from that of the food pantry. Nancy describes the patrons here as more of a “rough and ready crowd”. “If you’re living on the streets the social graces of society don’t seem to apply to you anymore”, she explains. While there are no limitations on the amount of food diners can have, Nancy says diners will frequently insist they just arrived despite the fact that she has served them once already. She acknowledges the fact that mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, and a basic lack of life skills prevents many of the patrons at the soup kitchen from accessing other resources that may be available. The function of the soup kitchen is to provide food for anyone who wants it.
Soup Kitchen Volunteer – Photo by Eric Jenks
I have great respect for my friend Nancy’s commitment to doing her part in providing for those in need of food in a community of abundance. I also know she is not alone in her efforts. There are a myriad of church and neighborhood run groups who provide food for those in need. Steven Sullivan, owner of two restaurants in Saratoga Springs, donates the food served at the soup kitchen two Sundays each month (Revette, 2013). Donations also come from other area restaurants, local supermarkets provide baked goods, and milk comes from Stewart’s Shops. Because of the generosity of donors like these the soup kitchen has been in operation for over twenty years (Revette, 2013).
Steve Sullivan – Photo by Charlie Samuels
As I think about food security in my area I feel privileged by the amount of choices to choose from. Cheap food is abundantly available, despite the robust debate regarding the health risks associated with consuming processed foods. Those focused on securing local food sourcing are able to select from a vast amount of farmers with a variety of food products because of the region in which we live. But the financial burden of being able to access food from any purveyor seems to be a continuing dilemma for many. As a journalist, it seems that spreading the word about the resources available to those in need and informing those who have enough about the plight of those who don’t might be a critical component of cementing food security in our community. I am ready to play my part.