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Hungry for Change

Food justice warriors fight to make fresh food available to all

Over the past decade, the conversation about the politics of our food system has quickly risen from a simmer to a steady boil. Studies of the American industrialized food complex—which relies heavily on chemical processing and refining of foods to enhance flavor or shelf life by loading food with sugar, salt, and artificial ingredients—have revealed damning consumer health implications linked to a range of ailments, including obesity and Type 2 diabetes. 

Our national eating habits began to change in the late 1950s and ’60s, just as many American households transitioned from single to double incomes. Slowly, home cooking was sliced from daily routines, leading to many families’ reliance on affordable and expedient options offered by fast-food chains.

In the five decades since, the manufacture of fast food has taken a grotesque turn. As a way to keep costs down and cravings high, the corporations cooking for Americans today rely far more on fat, salt, and sugar than most home-cooked recipes. Agricultural practices have suffered, too. According to food author and activist Michael Pollan, the fast-food giants’ demand for flawless french fries, for example, has led potato farmers to rely on a toxic pesticide so potent that once harvested the potatoes require six weeks’ rest to expel their noxious gas.

Now, as food consumers become savvier than ever about food systems and the many inequalities therein, the food justice movement is heating up, and Swarthmoreans involved in outreach, education, entrepreneurship, and policy are all helping to stir the pot.


Hot Button Lunch

In 2002, Jerusha Klemperer ’96 was a New York-based actor when a friend gave her a copy of Fast Food Nation, which examines the global effects of the United States’s fast food giants. After reading it, she “became obsessed with the food system,” and landed a job with Slow Food USA, a nonprofit that connects eaters with the sources of their food. A few years in, she was assigned to research the Child Nutrition Act, which was up for congressional reauthorization, and met a cohort of activists working to improve school lunches. In 2010, she and five others —including some from that child nutrition cohort—started FoodCorps, which trains emerging leaders to connect kids to healthy food in school.

FoodCorps is an AmeriCorps grantee that works in 17 states and Washington, D.C., to partner service members with underserved schools where 50 to 70 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-priced lunch. Klemperer, the communications director and co-founder of the nonprofit, says that their work focuses underprivileged children, a key demographic that is most threatened by systematic food inequities.

“School lunch is the main source of many children’s daily calories, so if we're going to give kids meals, they should be the best possible calories we can give them,” says Klemperer, noting that vulnerable populations in hospitals and prisons are also widely being fed some of the most highly processed foods our system has to offer.

“As our food system became more TV-dinnered over the last generation, schools got rid of trained staff. They got rid of all the equipment, and budgets were slashed,” she adds. “Now we're trying to tip it back.”

FoodCorps aims to set kids up for a healthy future by introducing them to new and fresh foods through gardening and cooking lessons and to make the whole school—especially the cafeteria—a place associated with nutritious foods. The imperative is straightforward, but the stakes have never been higher. Children’s taste and familiarity with food develop at a young age, and children from low-income communities are especially prone to develop unhealthy diets because of neighborhood redlining by supermarkets and independently owned restaurants— leaving fast-food chains and corner stores as the most accessible sources of food. By forming cravings early in childhood through heavy marketing and an overreliance on fat and sugar, processed fast foods often become the lifelong staples of many in underserved neighborhoods. The implications of this paradigm are grim: One in three children is on track to develop diabetes. In communities of color, the number jumps to one in two; by 2030, the eventual diet-related illnesses of today’s children will cost our nation more than $1 trillion a year in medical costs and lost productivity.


No More Kitchens

When education major Corey Carmichael ’14, one of FoodCorps’s approximately 200 service members, arrived at her assigned Boston and Cambridge, Mass., schools, she discovered that most Boston schools were without kitchens. Boston schools aren’t alone: A 2014 Pew survey revealed that the nationwide need for school-kitchen funds runs in excess of $5 billion, since a program that maintains school-kitchen equipment has gone unfunded by Congress for the last three decades.

“It's interesting having the comparison between Cambridge and Boston, because the quality of food is so vastly different,” Carmichael says of the two school districts—Cambridge has a median household income of $73,000 to Boston’s $54,000. “Only three elementary schools that FoodCorps works with in the Boston public school system have an in-house kitchen—otherwise the food is shipped in. In Cambridge, most schools have their own kitchen, and they prepare everything on site.”

Carmichael, who hopes to one day run an educational farm in her native Maine, teaches kindergartners through eighth-graders about the industrialized food complex while also helping them develop grocery-shopping and food-prep skills. Her pizza-making lesson in a kitchenless Boston school—which included making and rolling out the dough, preparing the sauce from scratch, and dicing vegetables from the school garden—demonstrates the creativity needed by FoodCorps members. “We got access to the teachers' lounge and brought an electric burner to pan-fry our pizzas,” she says. “The teachers are usually OK with it when we give them some of the leftovers.”  

Another of FoodCorps’s objectives—to connect children with the source of their food—is an imperative that played out when Carmichael’s Boston pupils watched in disbelief as she worked a cider press: They didn’t know that apple juice came from apples.

These victories inspire Carmichael, who takes pride in seeing her students at grocery stores with their parents to purchase foods they tried or made in her classroom. She says that of kids surveyed after a semester, 80 percent report trying a new vegetable and 50 percent report liking a new vegetable—a beacon of hope for the 95 percent of American children who do not receive the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.


A Capital Need

Oakland, Calif., native Sarah Ting ’10 came to FoodCorps in 2014 with an already-impressive social-justice résumé. After Swarthmore, she dived into policy work at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that conducts national social and economic research on the challenges of rapidly urbanizing environments. From there she pivoted to work in India at its largest women’s trading union, which led to field research on farming, food systems, and the effects of globalization on the developing country.

As a FoodCorps service member in her hometown, she supported the nascent California Thursdays program, which engages local farmers to bring fresh food into school cafeterias.

“Switching from frozen lunches to fresh, scratch-cooked meals sourced from local famers was a win-win-win. We could support the local economy, local farmers, and kids who are getting exciting, healthy, fresh food,” she says, adding that a child’s performance in school often drastically improves in proportion to the healthiness of their diets.

Ting, a public-policy graduate student at UC Berkeley, also worked with the district’s diverse student body to develop suggestions for culturally appropriate, healthy dishes for the cafeteria—like jambalaya, enchiladas, and a chicken rice bowls.

“Communities of color have long histories of healthy diets. Over a generation or two these communities have experienced a shift in the way that they've been exposed to unhealthy food products, which are marketed to them. All of that was not by accident,” says Ting. “Sodas and junk food entered into schools and vending machines, and the local stores no longer carry healthy products. These systematic eating-habit changes are not necessarily out of pure choice but out of the larger dynamics of our inequitable industrial food system.”

This is playing out in Oakland, which, in part because of the Silicon Valley tech boom, has become more stratified than ever. North Oakland is flush with high-quality grocery stores and healthy restaurants—a “food oasis,” as Ting calls it—whereas East and West Oakland are bereft of grocery stories and beset by fast-food chains. Nationally, 23.5 million low-income citizens live more than a mile away from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. Low-income neighborhoods typically have 50 percent fewer grocery stores per square mile than their wealthier counterparts, according to the Department of Agriculture.

“East and West Oakland have entrepreneurial communities of color, including immigrants from across the world who’ve risked everything to come here, yet they are unable to build or expand pre-existing food businesses, because of a lack of access to capital,” she says. “We need an economic shift in how we help undersupported food businesses and entrepreneurs looking to fulfill the need for fresh food in their communities.”

One idea for improvement, according to Ting and others, is creating a dialogue with members of the affected community about how they’d like to help heal their food system from within.

“The consumer-choice conversation can only go so far when communities being served by food programs aren’t invited to help create them. This is a reality we see not just in food policy but in general,” she says. “Real, democratic policymaking functions best when all communities are included in the decision making and dialogue.”

Ting, in one of her many roles in food-based nonprofits in Oakland, is working to improve guidelines for low-capital entrepreneurs in mobile businesses, like food trucks and carts—which often sell scratch-cooked foods—since that model has been proven to provide a foot in the door to food-service entrepreneurs.


The Green Grocer

Before being singled out by a middle-school guidance counselor and accepted into the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy for high school, James Johnson-Piett ’03 grew up in Philadelphia’s infamous Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, making him intimately familiar with the meager food options in low-income urban areas.

One of his first jobs out of Swarthmore was as a data analyst for the The Food Trust based in Philadelphia, working to “define what a food desert was before the term existed, ” he says. “I feel like a 37-year-old grandfather of a movement. Things have evolved quite a bit in the last 12 years.”

The Food Trust creates public-private partnerships with the goal of bringing supermarkets and other purveyors of fresh food into underserved communities. To make this happen, Johnson-Piett turned to pre-existing independent grocers and owners of corner stores, using grants and loans to renovate rundown spaces to create room for fresh produce and prepared foods alongside the less healthy standard bodega fare.

“Nationally, we were the only ones doing raw economic development/real estate work around food issues,” says Johnson-Piett. “Most of the focus was on shifting the products of the bodegas, and the marriage of economic development and food access as a strategy caught on, so now there are a multiple organizations funded in the multimillions of dollars from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the USDA, and other federal agencies.”

Eventually, Johnson-Piett went into business for himself working on economic and mixed-use real estate development nationally, in communities in Detroit, Newark, N.J., and New York, where his firm, Urbane Development, is situated.

“I care about underserved markets, because that’s where I came from and where I feel our support is needed the most. Our mission is to create wealth-generating opportunities for underserved communities,” says Johnson-Piett. “Food is a core requirement, and hunger is a pain point you can’t necessarily alleviate unless you create opportunities around entrepreneurship.”

Urbane Development was recently awarded a major redevelopment project for the Flatbush Caton Market in the heart of Flatbush, Brooklyn. The market—which hosts 47 vendors of mainly Caribbean descent who sell food, housewares, and clothing—will be razed this year and rebuilt by 2020 with even more vending space, plus 166 affordable housing units. In the meantime, Johnson-Piett’s company will train the vendors, who will operate from a temporary structure, in topics like bookkeeping, marketing, and food safety. Additionally, Urbane helps low-income residents secure funding for entrepreneurial ventures, but finds that food-related businesses hit a sweet spot.

“Food is a unifying agent, and very powerful in terms of our sustenance and economics,” he says. “It's timely that people are looking at food as an issue. Most movements are at the core of who we are, and we’re just giving the food movement a chance to be something we’re really focused on intentionally.”


Defined Sustainability 

Food-movement activists are hard at work everywhere, including in rural landscapes— like Alice Evans ’10’s native Alabama—where agriculture abounds. She attributes her career to a summer at Swarthmore “following around” Tina Johnson, co-director of the Community Grocery Co-Op in Chester, Pa., on a Summer Social Action Award from the Lang Center for Social Responsibility.

“I credit Tina with a lot of my politics and for framing the beginning of my interest in the food movement,” she says. “We had all of these great conversations about what food access and food justice means.”

After working on a research farm for a year postgraduation and then doing other odd farming jobs, Evans became director of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN), which connects farmers interested in sustainable practices and works to strengthen local food systems. ASAN was established by frustrated organic farmers in Alabama in the early 2000s, after they had been turned away from land-grant universities’ agricultural extensions.

“They were being told, ‘You can't do that in Alabama.’ I think at that time, organic was too foreign,” says Evans. “Places that were farming organically then were culturally and agriculturally very different from here.”

Evans has found that defining sustainable farming is a complex task, and she works to dispel common misconceptions about organic food.

“From a systems perspective, a sustainable food network has so many more pieces to it than how many chemicals you do or don’t use on your farm,” she says, noting that while an organic certification might provide some hallmark of fresh food, if someone uses pesticides occasionally but helps to feed their community from their garden, that’s sustainability in action, too.

“A lot of this work is about getting diverse people with diverse experiences in the room and allowing our analyses to change based on what those folks are saying,” she says. “We have to be open to changing our movement’s priorities, based on what this new, inclusive version of us has to say. If we're going to move forward in a productive way, that’s what’s important.”

Also of importance to Evans are economic incentives to continue to farm, organic or otherwise.

“If products are made locally and sold locally, there’s a decentralized, bottom-up economic impact that is harder to measure, but much more resilient,” she says. “If farmers, whether they identify with the movement or not, go out of business or sell their land to subdivisions, that’s a hit to sustainable agriculture. We lose generations of farming wisdom and topsoil that we can’t get back.”


The Food Prism  

As the food movement has increased its momentum, it has become incredibly multidisciplinary, making room for more and more Swarthmoreans along the way. Food can be viewed as a prism, Jerusha Klemperer ’96 explains, and through it, you can see any parts of our system that are broken.

“If you're concerned about poverty, inequity, nutrition, environmental degradation,” she says, “you could focus on one piece of the food system and effect change.” 

Within our vast food system, laden with so many inequities, how should a thoughtful eater proceed? One simple tenet to live by, says Klemperer, is to simply cook, especially since a recent study suggests that Americans get 1,000 calories per day from highly processed food.

“There are a lot of ancillary elements to that, like knowing a food’s source or shortening the distance the food has had to travel to get to you by shopping at farmers markets, but home cooking, regardless of where the food comes from, is a good start,” says Klemperer.

She also suggests introducing fresh food to children at home and says that FoodCorps service members have found that introductions to new foods can take five to 10 tries before a kid gives the thumbs-up.

“As parents, you have an opportunity. Don’t give up on your kids,” she says. “Try things more than once and prepared in different ways. Give them a chance to fall in love with food.”