Closing the Food Gap: An Interview With Mark Winne
Thursday, 22 September 2011 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Mark Winne photo courtesy of Mark WinneMark Winne is a community food advocate and former executive director of the nonprofit Hartford Food System, based in Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked for 24 years. While there he helped to develop commercial food businesses, farmers’ markets, a food bank, nutrition education programs and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation on a 25-acre farm.

Winne currently writes, speaks and consults extensively on topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community food assessment, and food policy. He recently published Closing the Food Gap–Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. His many awards include a US Department of Agriculture Secretary’s Plow Honor Award and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Fellowship.

Winne resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he serves on the Santa Fe Food Policy Council and the Southwest Grass-fed Livestock Alliance.

EcoHearth: Tell us about the 25-acre CSA farm you started.

Mark Winne: A suburban Hartford town came into possession of a beautiful old New England farm and offered our nonprofit 25 acres of rich, river-bottom land. Our vision was to return it to a working farm in a way that included all members of our community. We sold shares to higher-income households to cover our costs, and subsidized shares for lower-income participants. Holcomb Farm CSA currently serves about 1500 households, of which a third are middle- to upper-income shareholders. The farm grows roughly 150,000 pounds of produce annually.

EH: Besides subsidizing CSA shares, how were you able to interest low-income people in participating?

MW: We worked with existing nonprofits already serving low-income communities. We partnered with youth and senior agencies, an HIV/AIDS facility, and an Hispanic health agency. Our CSA shareholders who didn’t grow up with vegetables like kale or eggplant didn’t know how to prepare them, so we provided cooking classes. We also ran a shuttle from Hartford to the farm and made the experience as personal as possible.

EH: Do you think there’s an information gap that prevents people from making better food choices?

MW: It’s really more an education gap. I once asked the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools if he would consider removing the soda machines from the city’s public schools. He declined, saying that leaving the machines represented a choice for the students. But there were only four hours of health education per year, one hour of which was dedicated to food. The rest was about drugs, sex and hygiene. Essentially, the education system failed them. So I thought the superintendent’s argument was disingenuous.

The average household watches four hours of television per day, with dozens of commercials on fast food and soft drinks. America’s food industry pumps out billions of dollars of persuasive messages designed to lure us into its clutches. But food environment is just as powerful as advertising. In Hartford, there are many neighborhoods with no healthy and affordable food outlets. You can literally roll out of bed and have about six choices of fast-food restaurants within walking distance.

EH: Visits to food pantries are on the rise. Are fresh fruits and vegetables a rarity at food banks?

MW: Actually, fresh produce has increased at food pantries. They are not getting as much non-perishable food because the food industry has improved its inventory control. But they can source fresh produce from regional distributors who would otherwise have to dump ripe but still edible food. This helps them as well as wholesalers, who avoid waste-handling fees.

EH: How is it that large food industries are allowed to offload low-quality surplus on public-school cafeterias?

MW: It’s true that the federal government buys surpluses from the food industry, especially to reduce surpluses that keep commodity prices low for farmers. So surplus meat, milk and cheese find their way into the school system. There was an uproar about this when the Humane Society did an undercover exposé showing downer cows being pushed into meat-processing facilities. These dairy cows had been producing milk for the school lunch program and were in the process of also becoming hamburger for the schools.

The fact is that public-school budgets allow for $2.50 per meal per day, of which only $1 is for food. The rest goes to labor, equipment and other costs. This forces them to buy the cheapest available food, which comes out of the industrial system.

The good news is that the child nutrition program is being debated in Congress. The USDA and the White House have planted organic gardens. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is pushing for more edible schoolyards.

Some state legislatures have allotted funds for public schools to buy local fresh food. In New Mexico, with state funding, farmers like Fred Martinez in Dixon are able to sell apples to public schools basically for the cost of the boxes and picking. There are about 9,000 public schools across the country with farm-to-school programs. That’s 10% of all the nation’s public schools.

EH: Our local farmers’ market vendors can accept food stamps because they have an electronic card-swipe machine that accepts the State EBT (food stamp) card. Is this the case in other cities?

MW: Yes, but not at all farmers’ markets. When the food stamp program switched to a debit-card system, not everyone could afford the expensive equipment to handle debit cards. But increasingly, federal and state governments and foundations are helping them buy the equipment.

In Connecticut, Washington, DC, and New York state, groups like the Wholesome Wave Foundation are providing additional incentives to food-stamp participants to shop at farmers’ markets by doubling the value of their food stamps when they buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

There are also nutrition programs that predate these food-stamp initiatives. The government sponsors Women Infant Children (WIC) participants as well as lower-income senior citizens to purchase fresh food at farmers’ markets.

EH: How do you define food security?

MW: It is the ability of people to acquire food to live a healthy life. To achieve this, we want to be sure everyone gets fed. In the long-term, we want to get out of the business of feeding people and help them feed themselves. Education, affordable food prices, and access to healthy food outlets are key to ending food insecurity.

EH: Explain why poorer states have higher obesity rates.

MW: Poor people, urban or rural, buy cheaper food. In rural areas, where the nearest grocery store is 25 or more miles away, people often depend on convenience-store food. In urban areas, lower-income people may live in “food deserts” and not own an automobile. This means they are forced to shop at high-priced, poorly stocked neighborhood stores.

One-third of New Mexico’s counties are considered “food deserts”. It is the second most food-insecure state in the nation. So when they have a meal, people tend to binge on high-calorie junk foods.

EH: Ironically, hospitals are known for unhealthy food. Are they beginning to make the connection between nutritious food and health?

MW: Actually, yes. Kaiser Permanente started a Healthy Purchase pilot program to help food-stamp recipients consume more fruits and vegetables. They host farmers’ markets at their facilities and their menus include more fresh produce. Health care foundations are also looking for ways to get nutritious food to people.

EH: Besides Hartford Food System, what is another example of an organization that is working to close the food gap?

MW: The Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas started a program called La Cocina Alegre (The Happy Kitchen). They provide cooking classes, nutrition education and teach people how to shop for healthier food. They discuss the connection between diet and disease, and promote healthy development in children. They also work with school gardens and are transforming vacant lots into urban gardens. When people are given these opportunities, they make lasting changes. La Cocina Alegre has been able to turn around moms’ diets in only six weeks.

EH: How can government play a role in closing the food gap?

MW: The food industry needs some regulation, reminiscent of what we have done to Big Tobacco. Fortunately, advertising of unhealthy food, especially to children, is being curtailed. Some cities such as Los Angeles and New York are trying to create “fast-food-free zones,” particularly near schools.

Many state legislatures and the federal government are considering taxes on sodas and other junk food. The heavy hand of big government is necessary because the industry has shown no inclination to curtail its own immoral assault on our nation’s health.

Every community needs to offer its residents a place where they can buy healthy and affordable food. State legislatures need to act on “re-storing” their state’s underserved communities and requiring more nutrition education in the schools. A great example is Pennsylvania, where their state legislature appropriated $30 million to bring new supermarkets back into underserved communities.

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