Combatting Food Insecurity through Collaboration

This is a piece I wrote as part of a job application and wanted to share. P.S. sign up for my new monthly newsletter on the right side bar – first email goes out in early May and is all about food justice. 

Despite such a seemingly straightforward name, food security is a complex global issue. For many it refers to a state of adequate healthful food intake, for others it refers to food that is safe to consume. In developing nations, projects promoting food security focus on survival – providing support for farmers and building infrastructure to distribute food and water safely.  In the United States, food security initiatives face the challenge of addressing hunger and obesity simultaneously.  Processed foods with the lowest nutritional value are the cheapest and most accessible foods in the United States, contributing to this paradox. Policy efforts in the United States combat this through limiting advertising, setting specific nutrition standards for children, the SNAP program, the National School Lunch program and more.

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There is no ‘Department of Food’, people who work on food-related issues are researchers, scientists, farmers, growers, producers, distributors, educators and eaters. Cross-sector thinking is needed to make sustainable and impactful changes in the food environment. Built environment decisions such as the location of sidewalks, crossing signals, bus routes and bike paths influence food security.  Integration of nutritional resources in healthcare can impact the reach of programs and services available to the food insecure population. The undeniable correlation between those living in poverty and those who are hungry means an opportunity to connect them with jobs and professional development to improve health status.

The most notable collaborative effort for food insecure children and teens in the United States is the extensive programming offered through public and non-profit school systems. The integration of healthful food education in schools teaches our youth what healthy food is, where it comes from, how to grow it and how to prepare it. Children spend one-third of their day in school, half of their waking hours, making it the ideal setting to promote healthful eating and provide positive feeding experiences. The logic behind targeting children with this type of programming in school is that these experiences are shared with parents and siblings at home, expanding programmatic reach. Schools have faced a lot of nutritional policy initiatives over the last few years, banning sugar-sweetened beverages, regulating food brought in for celebrations and stricter standards for school lunches.

Challenges to creating a collaborative solution to food insecurity through education include the lack of funding and time for non-core programming and restrictions on funding use. Programs and initiatives have a duty to fulfill objectives set forth in a funding agreement and this may make collaboration difficult. Food is a priority, but healthful food and related education is not, resulting in sparse resources. Current efforts to provide free or reduced price breakfast and lunch show positive impact for elementary-aged students, however, uptake is extremely low among older students.  Initiatives need to develop ways to engage teenagers in programming and provide solutions for weekends, holiday breaks and summer vacations.  Many of the nutritional policies put in place in schools happen at the local level when there is potential for national impact.

Schools have the potential to be community hubs, full of resources for the entire families, not just students. Food security is an issue of hunger, health, geography, economic status, and education. Solutions need to bring these industries together.

Laura Ryan