Presbyterians help people in marginalized contexts gain access to affordable, healthy food
By Tammy Warren | Communications Associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency
Mary Medina, a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer, thought she knew what a food desert was until she participated in a short-term mission trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Then I understood the toll it takes on a community,” she says.
“New Orleans is a port city, and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to farm or grow a garden. However, in a place riddled with heart disease, diabetes, and strokes, it’s important to stress how important fresh fruits and veggies are to the health and nutrition of the population,” she says.
In the United States today, 50 million people—one in six—live in a condition of sustained hunger or food insecurity, according to the 2016 Hunger Report, published by the nonprofit Bread for the World Institute, a Christian advocacy group supported by the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
“All people deserve access to healthy, affordable food, regardless of where they live or how much money they earn,” says Andrew Kang Bartlett, the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s associate for national hunger concerns. “It’s a basic right, not a privilege.”
Hunger, poverty, and poor health are interconnected, adding $160 billion to diet-related national healthcare spending annually. In addition, food insecurity in childhood is often a predictor of academic or developmental delays, as well as chronic health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Accessibility to nutritious food often varies by ZIP code, Kang Bartlett says, with communities of color, regardless of income, having fewer grocery stores and farmers markets than white communities.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the nonprofit New Roots, which is supported by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, has addressed accessibility issues in food insecure neighborhoods by offering Fresh Stop Markets.
Fresh Stops are open to everyone, but most markets reserve the majority of shares for low-income individuals and families, based on Women, Infants and Children eligibility guidelines. Produce is ordered one or two weeks before pickup day, and shares are allocated on a sliding scale. A $12 share, purchased with a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card (“food stamps”), provides a bounty of mostly organic seasonal produce grown in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
The Presbyterian Hunger Program has adopted a holistic approach to addressing food justice, Kang Bartlett says, citing New Orleans as an example.
“In the ruin after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents were assisted by Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Self-Development of People, three ministries supported by gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.
“Our efforts in New Orleans were strengthened through collaboration,” Kang Bartlett says. “We listened to people and community groups, and provided grants to address poverty, hunger, disaster recovery, and more. By partnering with neighborhood associations and nonprofit organizations we can do more to address the root causes of hunger and to build self-reliance and food sovereignty.
“Food justice attempts to address racism and other underlying issues behind ‘food apartheid’—when affordable food access is limited in the so-called food deserts. A justice approach is needed because healthcare disparities add to the food inequities, and the incidence of diet-related disease, suffering, and death is greater in low-income communities.
“In food justice, racism and the related neglect and disinvestment in low-income communities are identified by community members and addressed in various ways. Food justice entails teaching and learning the history, identifying systemic causes, and tackling those through power-building efforts by people as they reconstruct a food system that is more healthy, fair, and sustainable.”
Food justice in Boston
This year, three Young Adult Volunteers—Mary Medina, Ashley Earley, and Taylor McLean—are learning practical ways to apply their faith to promote food justice as they live and work in the Greater Boston area.
In its third year, the Boston Food Justice YAV Program site is the first of the more than 20 national and international YAV sites to focus all their efforts on food justice. The site is a ministry of the Presbytery of Boston and has been partially funded by the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
Each YAV serves a congregation and a nonprofit organization Monday through Thursday. Fridays consist of meetings with local nonprofits to learn about topics such as workers’ rights, recycling, composting, sustainability, and legislative issues. The YAVs also volunteer at the Greater Boston Food Bank, work in community gardens, and serve meals at day shelters for the homeless.
For half the year the YAVs eat only locally grown food. For the other half they apply for and live on SNAP benefits. (See related story at pcusa.org/today.)
“It’s a partnership model,” explains Catherine Gillette, YAV alumna and coordinator of the site. “Each YAV works with a Presbyterian church and a local nonprofit related to food justice. Together the churches and the nonprofits work with farmers and others in the community to improve access to wholesome, nutritious food for families in need in the communities of Burlington, Brookline, and Easton, Massachusetts.”
Sharing the harvest in Burlington
YAV Mary Medina serves with Burlington Presbyterian Church and People Helping People, a nonprofit committed to meeting residents’ needs for food, medicine, utilities, and holiday assistance.
“Although I went into the year knowing my mind would be blown away and my heart would break on a weekly basis, it still didn’t prepare me for the things I would hear and see every day,” Medina says. “What I’ve come to learn is that hunger in the United States is very different from hunger in other places. Hunger isn’t as obvious here.”
Medina helps the church by hosting nutrition and cooking classes at the People Helping People food pantry and assisting members of Farmer Dave’s Community Supported Agriculture program. Farmers affiliated with the program grow the produce, and residents purchase shares of the harvest. If people ask, “What on earth is kohlrabi, and how do I prepare it?” Medina, who loves to cook, is ready with recipes and cooking tips.
Resilience in Brookline
Ashley Earley serves First Presbyterian Church in Brookline and the nonprofit Women and Girls Thriving, an initiative to strengthen the community by building the resilience of women and girls. She organizes Listening and Learning Dinners, which combine nutritious meals and conversation about community issues. She also volunteers at both locations of the Brookline food pantry.
“I’ve been volunteering four hours a week at each site,” Earley says, adding that the workload can be intense. “We have served up to 65 households in four hours!”
Before Thanksgiving 450 turkeys and all the fixings were distributed, in addition to the regular weekly distributions. Overall, there was a 24 percent increase in families served in 2015. This prompted Earley to invite the congregation to make $10 donations to the pantry in lieu of buying poinsettias for Advent. Children in the church created colorful paper ornaments to represent the donations made in memory or in honor of loved ones.
“Instead of having a bunch of poinsettias after Christmas, the pantry received donations of $495 from the congregation and $1,200 from the church’s mission fund,” Earley says. “This will help in purchasing the items they need most.”
Altering perceptions in Easton
Taylor McLean is serving her YAV year with Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church and My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), a nonprofit that delivers food and furniture to individuals and families in Easton and the federally designated food desert of Brockton. She supervises volunteers, answers calls for food and furniture assistance, and helps in the church’s new community garden, which donates produce to My Brother’s Keeper.
In January, McLean facilitated Urban Plunge, a three-day winter break service program for college students hosted by MBK. The 2016 event included students from five colleges.
“I can’t begin to tell you what a delight it was to spend time with these young people, to hear about their plans for their lives, and to teach them about the many complicated aspects of poverty,” McLean says.
During Plunge week, Ryan Thorley, MBK’s Easton operations manager, McLean, and five young women delivered a truckload of furniture to a family of seven.
“They’d been in the apartment almost a month, and in a shelter before that, so they were starting from scratch,” McLean says. “We got everything inside and reassembled, but more importantly we got to know this family in the process.”
Presbyterian Hunger Program: pcusa.org/hunger
Young Adult Volunteer Program: pcusa.org/yav
Food Connection: food connection.co
“Many of the students commented during our reflection time later that night that some people at the Table didn’t ‘look homeless,’ ” McLean says. “This comment, while well-intentioned, highlights the expectations we have about the poor—that people should look and act a certain way.”
The first person they delivered food to recognized them from the Table. “Seeing our service come full circle was very rewarding,” McLean says. “The students saw that not all the people we served are homeless, and by meeting this man in his home, he had the chance to share more of his life and reality with us.”
Partnerships Feed the Hungry Through a ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ Approach
By Tammy Warren | Communications Associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, is in the taxi business—sort of.
Food Connection, a nonprofit hunger-relief organization based in Asheville, uses taxicabs and volunteers to deliver freshly prepared surplus food—donated by Asheville restaurants, caterers, and university cafeterias—to feeding centers in the community. Grace Covenant has provided $750 to help cover the cost of transporting the extra food to feed hungry people and reduce waste.
The process works like this: Food Connection is alerted via text when food is ready for pickup. Within minutes, Asheville Taxi or a volunteer arrives to deliver the food to a facility for homeless veterans, a shelter for runaways, and other feeding programs in the community.
“The idea is working well,” says Flori Pate, a member of Grace Covenant and cofounder and executive director of Food Connection. “Food Connection donors are relieved to have an alternative to tossing out perfectly good food.”
Since its first pickup about a year ago, Food Connection has facilitated the delivery of more than 15,000 meals to hungry people in the Asheville area—fresh food left over from restaurants, caterers, and cafeterias at the University of North Carolina’s Asheville campus and nearby Mars Hill University.
In addition, Food Connection has assisted First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, Georgia, in establishing a food-donation partnership with Kennesaw State University. Beginning this spring, volunteers will pick up an estimated 200 pounds of food a day from Kennesaw State and deliver it to various community organizations that feed the hungry and help alleviate poverty.
“This fresh, healthy food that was getting thrown away is now filling the bellies and souls of our neighbors in need,” Pate says.
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