Food and Faith is a blog of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
I had a conversation this last weekend that highlighted the root of the problem we face in trying to change our food system: lack of understanding. My friend’s husband asked me what I was doing in my new job. As soon as we clarified that I was not in fact working at a nursing home (I’m not sure how he got this idea!), I began the monumental task of explaining what I do. What I do is not easy to explain.
I do a mixture of community organizing and support capacity-building at a variety of food justice organizations. Much of what I do is meet with people to learn what they are doing to effect change. See, you still probably have no clue what I really do!
When my friend’s husband asked what I was really doing, I gave an example of some work we—the other AmeriCorps Food Justice VISTAs and I—are doing here in Indianapolis to help some farmers’ markets accept SNAP and advertise to lower-income communities. The response I got was, “Why would a poor person want to spend their limited money at the farmers’ market? What’s wrong with the grocery store?” I seem to have this problem a lot. How do we increase consumers’ desire to know where their food is coming from and act on this knowledge?
The common assumption is that only people who make above a certain income care where their food comes from. After all, they are the ones who tend to frequent farmers’ markets and places like Whole Foods (or as my uncle calls it, “Whole Paycheck”). They are the ones who have the liberty to be picky about their food. This is not to say that people with low incomes cannot be conscious consumers. Check out the Project for Public Spaces Report on how to overcome barriers and attract low-income consumers to farmers’ markets. In fact, a food desert study conducted for the Local Initiative Support Corporation in 2011 here in Indianapolis found that low-income people who reside in and near five prominent food deserts are more interested in their food than we thought. The study found that two income brackets are particularly interested in their food sources: those at the top 5 to 10 percent, and people at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Yes, I repeat, according to this survey, there is definitely a desire among low-income people here in certain regions of Indianapolis to have more knowledge about and choice over their food.
Although perhaps puzzling, this is good news. This means that I am doing meaningful, much-needed work (what a relief!). Despite these findings though, there is still a need to increase awareness of food system issues among people of all income levels. I pose to you the question of how to do this (comments are welcome!), and I offer a few ideas:
1)Movies such as Food Inc. play a crucial role in opening people’s eyes, at least initially, although it takes more work to keep that interest going after the initial shock of the movie’s message has subsided. Here is where I think community and conversation kicks in.
2) Lead by example: have those hard conversations about why low-income people deserve access to farmers’ markets, and
3) Invite people over to eat the locally-grown food you have cooked!