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Nourishing a Nation

News & Features | March 7, 2016

Many of us grew up reluctant to eat our vegetables. Early childhood was the age of shrieking in terror and defiance as a forkful of broccoli not-so-craftily disguised as an airplane came gliding at them across the table—refusing their peas, their carrots, their brussels sprouts.

But what many don’t realize is that learning to “eat your veggies” is not simply a life process— it’s a privilege. Countless children growing up in low-income families cannot afford to be exposed to the fresh fruits and vegetables that are essential to their nutrition, and certainly cannot afford to spit out their broccoli.

Today, more than 48 million Americans live below the poverty line, and more than one in five children live at risk of hunger, according to Bread for the World’s 2016 Hunger and Poverty report. And while poverty and hunger are fairly obvious issues in the public sphere, what is often lost in translation is that fighting hunger is not the same as fighting for nutrition.

Recently, Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science in Boston, as well as several programs in the Medford/Somerville area, have investigated the disconnect between income and health, and how to combat it.

Park Wilde is a professor at the Friedman School. He’s an agricultural economist who specializes in the economy of nutrition and food retail in low income communities. Wilde has been conducting research concerning integrating incentives for healthy eating into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps. The program works by providing coupons for low-income families to spend on food at select grocery stores and even some farmers markets.

Bread for the World estimates that one in eight American households receive benefits from SNAP, making it the nation’s biggest anti-hunger program and the largest program in the Department of Agriculture. The main goals of the program are to minimize hunger and food insecurity.

Food insecurity is particularly central to the issue. The term is defined as “the state of being without reliable access to sufficient amounts of affordable, nutritious food.” Many factors, such as income, geographic location, and availability of resources contribute to this phenomenon, making it hard to measure.

SNAP has always been a resource to low income families for grocery shopping, but recently, policymakers have been trying to utilize the program to incentivize more nutritious, substantial eating.

Wilde piloted a large project for SNAP in Hamden, MA which offered 30 percent return incentives on fruits and vegetables. Every time a SNAP participant bought a bundle of carrots or bag of apples, they received 30 cents in benefits for every dollar they spent to use towards future purchases.

“[The program] plays on substantial evidence over the years that SNAP expansion was associated with decline of child hunger and child malnutrition,” Wilde said. What is special about this instance, he adds, is that it also improves dietary quality, something that policymakers were previously concerned would compete with the goal of protecting against hunger.

But the two objectives have proved highly compatible.

“The pilot has the idea of promoting [the purchase of] fruits and vegetables with the combination of marketing messages and financial incentives of real value,” Wilde said. “People think what would make food system [healthier] is if healthy food were priced lower, which would be nice, but economics is not just about demand but supply…if all healthy food were priced lower all farmers would be less interested in producing healthy food.”

This is why SNAP relies on subsidies from the federal government to make up the difference between what the consumer is paying and what the stores are getting, which can come at a cost to taxpayers.

The financial necessity behind healthy eating incentives is impossible to ignore, but can be approached in various ways. Wilde’s work at SNAP is one, while the local organization Groundwork Somerville is revolutionizing another.

Groundwork fights against nutrition deficiency in Somerville’s various low-income communities. Groundwork Somerville is a chapter of a national organization that is focused on community-organized environmental work. It runs a farm and school gardens, provides educational programming in Somerville public schools, and employs local youth.

The youth that work with Groundwork not only learn about nutrition and sustainable food production, but are also provided with the opportunity to sell the produce they raise at farmers markets back to members of the community for affordable prices, thus creating a self-sustaining cycle within the neighborhoods.

Further, what the members of Groundwork understand is that healthy eating in low-income communities is not just about affordability. Consumers have to know what they’re eating, how to eat it, and why they should be eating it. Education is another crucial component in changing eating habits, and the place that this poses the greatest challenge is with children.

Remember how kids don’t always want to try new veggies? Caitlin Daniel of the New York Times recently voiced this concern in a column on how the tendency for not just children of poverty, but all children, to be picky eaters is a huge struggle for parents looking to feed their kids healthier diets. For parents living a middle or upper class lifestyle, this may mean repeatedly attempting to feed a child something they may not like, with full knowledge that the food will be spat back out in a green mush. But for low-income families struggling to get food on the table in the first place, the risk of waste when a child refuses a new vegetable is simply not an option.

“To consume a variety of nutritious foods, children need to acquire new tastes. This is an opportunity that many families cannot provide,” Daniel said. “Schools can familiarize children with nourishing foods through gardening, experience-based nutrition education and healthy school meals.”

Groundwork has adopted this strategy with wild success. “Somerville’s excellent school garden program run through Groundwork exposes kids to all kinds of healthy food at a young age,” explained Sarah Gargaro, a Tufts student who works with the organization. “While this does not necessarily account for the financial barriers many families face when trying to buy healthy food, it does build a taste for fruits and vegetables in young children.”

A taste which, when families are then able to afford fresh produce through the Groundwork markets, will pay off enormously.

Another organization that works in conjunction with Groundwork is Shape Up Somerville. Shape Up’s mission is to create a healthier and more equitable community in Somerville. It uses a “mobile market”—quite literally a farmer’s market on wheels—that travels Somerville to increase accessibility to produce in otherwise isolated communities.

“[We] source and aggregate produce from four different farms, including Groundwork,” director Lisa Robinson said. “We have recently expanded, and are able to go to eight different locations within the city, targeting low income populations without immediate access to fresh affordable produce.”

Shape Up has also pursued this goal by pushing for cheaper and healthier options in local corner stores, again keeping with the idea that if healthy choices are available, residents will be more likely to buy them.

Like Groundwork, Shape Up recognizes that accessibility and education go hand in hand to create healthier lifestyles for low-income citizens. Robinson notes that focusing on wellness policies is one of their most effective tactics to produce change. The program has worked to introduce salad bars, enhance breakfast programs, emphasize active lifestyles, and plant gardens at local schools in order to address the necessity to define healthy habits for children.

Wilde agrees that nutritious school food and wellness programs are some of the most important programs working in conjunction with SNAP to address the needs of food-insecure children.

As important as nutrition education is for children, it is also critical for the adults doing the grocery shopping. Wilde lauds the nutritional education component of SNAP—SNAP-Ed, which provides voluntary, federally-funded education from nutrition experts operating out of UMass Amherst.

There exists an inherent dependency between inciting benefits and incorporating education. All three programs educate their participants, then provide them with the ability to apply what they learn to their eating habits. These programs also collaborate with each other. Shape Up, for example, offers half-off prices at their markets to anyone who uses SNAP or other similar vouchers.

Besides simply community education and financial incentives, Groundwork takes an additional approach. Knowing that most fresh produce is too expensive for a typical low-income family to buy on their own, and that many families are not originally from the United States, Groundwork acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect them to easily recognize all produce common to American markets and know how to cook with it.

Groundwork chooses its crops in response to this problem. “Groundwork strives to grow culturally appropriate crops. Beyond tomatoes and green beans, our farm grows callalo [and] jilo. These crops are native to many of the countries represented in Somerville’s diverse immigrant community and are some of our most popular at market,” Gargaro said.

This tactic does not stop at making it easier for community members to navigate their markets—it also completely changes the consumer’s perspective on produce shopping.

“Selling crops that are familiar and wanted by our community members makes them more likely to buy produce, but also makes their food interests, and by extension, their culture, feel validated in a farmer’s market environment,” Gargaro said.

In a time where, according to ABC, low-income Americans would have to be spending up to 70 percent of their food budget on market-price produce to follow America’s dietary guidelines, programs like Groundwork, SNAP, and Shape Up are indispensable.

While finances, policy, and resources will always be an obstacle to fighting hunger and food insecurity, these organizations are collaborating in fundamental, comprehensive ways to overcome them. We may be a long way from ending hunger as a nation, but Groundwork is helping us to inch closer. Even so, those who work in the field remain acutely aware of how precarious this challenge can be.

Considering this, Wilde says that moving forward with programs like SNAP pose one critical question: is it possible to enhance impact on dietary quality without undermining something that’s central to the program’s direction on food insecurity and hunger?

“There’s a discussion about modifying the program rules in a way to encourage more healthy eating,” Wilde said. “But the discussion is fairly delicate, because even if people are interested, they don’t want to [act] in a way that hinders the ability to protect against hunger.”