How to Use Your Money to Fight Food Insecurity Nationwide
My Brooklyn neighborhood is dotted with community fridges, food pantries, and food-justice organizations—which isn't unusual at all. At last count, New York City had 149 community fridges, each one stocked by neighbors looking out for other neighbors and backed by organizers who also hand out products such as diapers, masks, and other necessities. Freedge, an organization that tracks community fridges worldwide, has 377 free fridges in their database, from Dubai to Montreal and everywhere in between.
The proliferation of food-justice organizations and free food providers may seem as though it's one more outcome of the pandemic, but in actuality, food insecurity and the organizations working to support those who face it have been around long before COVID. If they seem more prominent now, it may be because this is one more societal fault line that worsened and, therefore, got more attention as the pandemic unfolded.
Food Insecurity and Food Injustice
The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) defines food insecurity as the "disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources." The ODPHP goes on to say that 17.4 million U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some time during 2014. The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) puts the number of food insecure households in 2020 at 13.8 million—which seems like a significant drop.
Still, those households encompassed 38.3 million people who "were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members." Of those people, 6.1 million were children. Moreover, according to data collected by Feeding America, an estimated 42 million Americans may face food insecurity this year—60 million Americans have turned to food banks and community programs already in 2021.
Of course, these numbers only describe people who didn't have enough food—they don't talk about the quality of the food that we have access to. The term "food desert" is used by the USDA ERS to describe areas that lack "sources of healthy and affordable food" and thus "may make it harder for some people to eat a healthy diet."
We tend to find food deserts in low-income neighborhoods or areas, although this isn't the case across the board. A quick look at the USDA ERS Atlas of Food Deserts shows that some food deserts include a population with a median income that's quite low, while others are characterized by a population with challenges accessing sources of nutritious food, either because they live too far or the transportation options aren't navigable. Most, however, combine these two characteristics; residents of these areas both belong to low-income homes and live far away from or have limited access to sources of good food.
Beyond having enough money to buy food and living in an area with enough healthy options, it's also important to have access to food that is culturally relevant and that reflects any dietary issues. Studies have found that suburban supermarkets offer lower prices and more variety, leaving folks in urban centers paying anywhere from 3 to 37 percent more than their suburban counterparts.
"It's important that we talk about how [food justice] is connected to climate justice and racial justice [...] specifically around issues of folks having access to fresh, culturally relevant, affordable, nutritious food," said Kimberly Chou Tsun An, founding member of FIG, a grassroots food justice collective. Chou added that "food is one of the most essential ways for folks to connect to each other and to show care." Anyone who has ever sat down to a family meal or eaten with dear friends knows that this is true. Food has a great deal of power to bring people together, and there are a lot of ways to make that happen.
Organizations that are helping fight hunger
Faith-Based Organizations (FBO)
Across the United States, myriad organizations are working to help people get access to healthy, culturally appropriate food in their own way. For example, faith-based organizations, regardless of religion or denomination, generally view providing avenues towards food security as a key tenet of their religious practice.
"Faith-based organizations (FBO) provide a space for members to express their faith through the missions and activities of the organizations' programming," says a 2017 paper by Rebecca Ligrani and Kim Niewolny, published in the Journal of Agriculture Food Systems and Community Development. As well, FBOs "[create] supportive community settings that may also help reduce social marginalization of historically underserved communities," making their role in a community a potentially crucial one.
Why Hunger, an organization with the proclaimed mission of "end[ing] hunger and advanc[ing] the human right to nutritious food in the U.S. and around the world," has aggregated some of the nationwide faith-based organizations in the U.S. The list includes 26 enterprises of various sizes and practices, but a faith-based organization can be as common as a local church food pantry, of which there are far too many to count.
Another model, exemplified by NYC-based FIG, is an amalgam of activists who usually do disparate work but have come together to achieve a common goal in the realm of food security. According to their website, the collective is "committed to total transformation of the food system, from our base here in Brooklyn and beyond." This is just one example (among many) of food security organizations who view the links between various categories of justice as inextricable and, therefore, as all part of the same struggle for a more equitable future.
"FIG started at the end of 2014 as a study group for people that were working in food, beverage, [and hospitality industries] and wanted to do better for themselves [and] their businesses," said Chou, adding that the group "quickly evolved [into] exploring issues about sourcing, agriculture, sustainable fishery. We started talking about labor, indigenous food sovereignty, [and] about gentrification."
The group began to support collaborators who were sending food to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, among other concrete actions. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, FIG was primed to take action, and they did—by collaborating with community organizations to launch a food security program. Chou made it clear that the group is being mindful about how to "reinforce and help support work that's already going on in communities, especially communities that are on the frontlines of fighting food [discrimination], rather than disrupt."
Over the course of the pandemic, FIG and their main collaborators, Collectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, have provided meals and groceries to hundreds of households.
For-Profit Food Cooperatives
According to the Food Co-op Directory, collected on behalf of the Grocery Story book and advocacy project and led by Jon Steinman, there are some 322 of these in the United States, each with its own specific values and goals, and they're in nearly every state. From Cape Canaveral, Fla. or Ft. Wayne, Ind. to Fairbanks, Alaska or Norwood, Colo., these member-owned grocery stores are dedicated to providing affordable and nutritious food to their communities.
One such cooperative is the Mandela Grocery in West Oakland, Calif., a store that is "operated, centrally governed, and democratically controlled by our worker-owners," according to the co-op website. While the co-op is a for-profit business, they are focused on making "money circulat[e] within our local economy longer, providing more jobs to people who live in our area, [and] creating opportunity for interdependence in the food space, where POC entrepreneurs generate livable incomes that support their families." Cooperatives like Mandela envision a path to a more equitable community by pooling resources and labor in order to support the local community, both fiscally and otherwise.
"We're supporting the community in multiple ways," said Briana Sidney, co-owner of Mandela. The Cooperative not only supports dozens of local farmers and vendors; they also partner with local elementary and middle schools to host farmers markets where families have easy access to fresh produce and learn about local farmers at the same time.
According to Sidney, officials at West Oakland Middle School were concerned that "their students were spending a lot of their money on hot chips, sodas, and things like that." The school wanted to provide a healthier alternative to their students, and they partnered with Mandela to make it happen. "We ran a store during lunchtime with fresh smoothies that we make in the morning, and local-made cookies and snacks. [The kids] were pretty skeptical [about the] green smoothies, but after they tried them, they were into it."
During COVID, Mandela initiated a program they call Sunday Service. Twice a month on Sunday, member-owners will gather in the co-op's commercial kitchen to "cook a hot meal and distribute it to local homeless neighbors in West Oakland," according to Sidney. Once the community knew about the program, everyone wanted to get involved. Sidney says that vendors are constantly offering to donate goods and individuals ask if they can help cook or drop off something pre-prepared.
Food Recovery and Food Rescue Movements
According to ReFED, a national nonprofit working to reduce food waste, an estimated 54 million tons of food gets thrown away each year in the United States. The organization equates that to "90 billion meals' worth of food" which is an incomprehensible amount of waste, especially when we think of the tens of millions of families experiencing hunger and food insecurity every day, nationwide. Food recovery or rescue organizations work to reduce this by rerouting perfectly good food to the tables of those who need it.
One such endeavor is the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a "student-led movement fighting food waste and working to end hunger in America," with chapters in 45 states and D.C. The movement has donated over 4 million meals and continues to expand, with new chapters opening in locations across the country.
"The number of people experiencing hunger is only growing, and the impacts of a warming climate are also doing the same," said Regina Anderson, Executive Director of FRN, "People and our environment are telling us every day that we need to do something differently when it comes to food and food waste, and the time has to be now."
That something means collecting food that would have otherwise been discarded from college campuses, businesses, and local farms and redistributing to nearby communities. When COVID-19 forced the closure of in-person institutions, the organization shifted their focus from colleges and businesses to farms and growers. Despite the changing shape of the food systems, FRN chapters donated over 442,000 meals from July 2019-June 2020.
"Over the course of the time I've been at FRN, [the rate of food insecurity has] risen and shifted but never dropped," said Anderson, "The shift has been in who is hungry—with the pandemic, people who have never been food insecure are now experiencing it. When we look at communities suffering with food insecurity, it's in every zip code, but we do see that it is mostly impacting people of color. Not coincidentally, these are also the communities suffering from built-in, structural racism."
How to Help
Food insecurity is a tremendous problem, and it may feel too overwhelming for an individual to tackle. Thankfully, we don't have to stare down this beast of a challenge alone; there are many allies in the struggle for a world devoid of hunger and injustice. Sidney, Anderson, and Chou all spoke about in-kind donations and volunteerism as vital to their mission, they also all acknowledged that having the funds with which to support the work is necessary for an organization's longevity and success.
Overall, there are two main ways to put your dollars to work fighting food insecurity and hunger: global or local.
Donating to a nationwide or global organization, such as Feeding America, the World Food Programme, the Food Recovery Network, or Meals on Wheels is a great move if you're more of a big-picture person. The USDA has created a helpful list of nationwide and global hunger relief organizations, which can be a great place to start. Each of these has a special focus, so be sure to read about each organization to find the one that best reflects your values.
If you'd like to go more local, there are a couple of routes to take. You can join a local co-op, which you can find by using Steinman's Co-op Directory, donate to the organization behind your local community fridge, or peruse the list of local organizations who are members of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. If you're passionate about eliminating food waste, you can find local food recovery organizations by using the Food Rescue Locator. If you want to support Black-owned farms and food-related organizations, the National Black Food & Justice Alliance (NBFJA) has plenty of resources on their site.
Whether you prefer to support a national or global enterprise or a local project, a faith-based endeavor or a secular collective, there's plenty that each of us can do. No one should go hungry or lack access to healthy food. By harnessing the power of food to connect us all, we may be able to unlock new realms of justice and see our way to a more compassionate, healthier tomorrow.