Food policy expert Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, gave a presentation called The Ugly Underbelly of the American Food System in 2008 at the Kansas City Central Library. Winne also helped KC Healthy Kids with the KC Healthy Food Policy Initiative. The Food Policy Initiative is working to educate people about the local food system and eventually start a food policy council (FPC) in the Kansas City area.
KC Healthy Kids is a nonprofit, private operating foundation focused on promoting fit and healthy kids in Greater Kansas City. The organization serves as the platform for connecting all the childhood obesity reduction efforts in the region. The goal is to provide the most useful information and tools to give children an opportunity to live healthy lives.
According to the American Heart Association, adolescent obesity has doubled and teen obesity has tripled since the 1980s. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity. Childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, orthopedic problems, liver disease, asthma, and depression. Missouri is ranked in the “Top Twenty” worst states for adult obesity, teen obesity and childhood obesity.
Two excerpts from Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, follow the interview below.
Pete Dulin: What percentage of their annual income do Americans spend as a percentage on food than any other nation?
Winne: Middle and upper income Americans spend 10% of their income on food; lower income Americans spend 20%.
Dulin: What does that percentage indicate about our government’s policies toward food production, distribution, and subsidies?
Winne: We have a “cheap food” policy in the U.S.. We subsidize commodities like corn and soybeans to try to keep the price of meat, dairy, and processed food products like soft drinks and fatty snack foods low. But we provide almost nothing in the way of subsidies for the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, the food that most of us don’t eat enough of.
Dulin: Further, what does it say about our spending habits as consumers?
Winne: Because the less healthy foods are cheaper, and the healthier foods are more expensive on a calorie-for-calorie basis, people buy too much of the former and not enough of the latter.
Dulin: What are some of the factors in U.S. government policy and agribusiness system of production and distribution that contribute to cheap food prices?
Winne: The actual price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 40% over the last 15 years while the price of soft drinks and processed snack products has declined by 15%.
Dulin: Are there costs that consumers should consider besides the price at the checkout stand?
Winne: Consumers should consider the cost to the environment, the community, and to the taxpayers of their food purchases. Production practices that harm the air and water, don’t pay living wages to farm and food workers, and require high government subsidies may not be the kind of practices that conscientious food consumers should support.
Dulin: You contend that the current food system is racist, classist, and sexist. How so?
Winne: Those who suffer most from the failures of the food system, marketplace, and public sector are people of color, lower income people, and women. The high price of unhealthy food and the existence of food deserts fall especially hard on these groups. Ineffective efforts to reduce poverty does as well. The worst jobs in America’s food system––field harvesters, slaughterhouse workers, busboys, waitresses, and pot washers––are generally performed by these groups as well. The poor and people of color suffer more from diet-related illnesses than other groups.
Dulin: Tell us about the “food gap” that’s addressed in your book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Is this an economic-based gap or do other factors come into play?
Winne: The food gap includes poverty, hunger, and food insecurity that affects 35 million Americans; people living in areas that are poorly served by affordable sources of healthy food; and higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the poor than higher income people. All of these conditions are set against a backdrop of ever-growing abundance of food, especially higher priced organic and locally produced food.
Dulin: Why does your book begin with the 1960s when examining food and poverty in this country?
Winne: The 1960s was the period when America re-discovered poverty and hunger. JFK created the food stamp program in the early 1960s and LBJ began the War on Poverty. I do set these conditions in the context of the actions taken earlier in the 1930s, the Great Depression and New Deal. The 1960s is also about as far back as I can remember.
Present: How can we change the national food system to provide healthy and nutritious food for all consumers that is locally accessible and affordable? Is organic food a necessary part of the solution?
Winne: It would require about $15 billion per year in additional food stamp expenditures to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in the U.S.. It would take about a $1 billion public investment to ensure that everyone has adequate access to healthy and affordable food stores; and it would require a modest set of both public and private interventions to enable more lower income families to obtain organic and local food.
Present: What steps can individuals take to make a change in purchasing patterns?
Winne: The most important steps people can take are to be as good food citizens as they are good food consumers. This means paying attention to what the government and the marketplace do that influences the cost, quality, and availability of healthy food. Right now public schools have about $1 per meal per child to spend on food for those who require subsidized meals. This is not enough. Increasing that government reimbursement significantly would mean that more children could eat well and that we can demonstrate as a society how important our children are to us.
Present: What does the term “community democracy mean as referred to in your book?
Winne: Community democracy, also food democracy, means that each one of us has the right to participate in actions that influence food, nutrition, and agriculture policy, at the local, state, and national levels. Those actions should not be made and determined by a relative small number of people, particularly those whose primary interest is profit.
www.markwinne.com – Community food systems expert and speaker.
www.kchealthykids.org – Non-profit organization focused on promoting fit and health kids by combating obesity.
www.inhomebistro.com – Bistro Kids Farm to School lunch program.
www.kcfoodcircle.org/ – Grassroots organization dedicated to local sustainable food systems. Publishes KC directory of local, organic, and free range food producers.
www.fns.usda.gov/fns/nutrition.htm – Nutrition Education, USDA Food and Nutrition Service
www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/applicant_recipients/10steps.htm – 10 steps to help fill your grocery bag through the Food Stamp Program. Learn if you or someone you know might be eligible for food stamps.
www.foodsecurity.org/ – Learn about the Community Food Security Coalition.
www.harvesters.org – Kansas City’s food bank. Learn how to give time, money, and food.
Mark Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, tells the story of how we get our food: from poor people at food pantries or bodegas and convenience stores to the more comfortable classes, who increasingly seek out organic and local products. Winne’s exploration starts in the 1960s, when domestic poverty was “rediscovered,” and shows how communities since that time have responded to malnutrition with a slew of strategies and methods. But the story is also about doing that work against a backdrop of ever-growing American food affluence and gastronomical expectations.
For twenty-five years, Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, Connecticut. He now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics.
From the Introduction
To enter the parking lot of any Hartford, Connecticut, supermarket in 1979 required a sharp, reckless turn into a poorly marked curb cut. If you came at it too fast to avoid a collision with the suicidal driver heading right at you, you would bottom out your car’s undercarriage on the lot’s steeply graded entrance. Once in the lot, Hollywood car-chase skills were essential to maneuver across a parking area that was strewn with broken glass, overturned shopping carts, and potholes deep enough to conceal a bushel basket. Since the white lines marking parking spaces were faded or nonexistent, you left your car wherever it suited you.
Once you got inside the store, the first thing you noticed was the smell. It wasn’t so much that “something has died” odor, but more the scent of something that rotted and was never fully cleaned up. When seasoned with a pinch of filth, marinated in gallons of heavily chlorinated disinfectant, and allowed to ferment over many years, the store released a heady aroma that brought tears to the eyes of men stronger than I.
Crunchy sounds emanated from the floor as your shoes crushed imperceptible bits of grit and unswept residue whose origins had long since been forgotten. The black and white floor tiles were discolored, unwaxed, and marred at irregular intervals by jagged brown stains that were forever one with the tiles.
Granted, these were pre-Whole Foods Market days. The supermarket industry did not yet have the technology that gives today’s stores the soft, warm glow of a tastefully decorated living room. Instead, the humming neon bulbs, shielded by yellowed plastic coverings, cast a sickly pallor over the shoppers, the staff, and, worst of all, the food. The iceberg lettuce, already suffering from a 3,000-mile journey by truck, looked like the victims of a mass beheading. The rest of the produce case, from mushy apples to brown bananas, displayed a similar lack of life. A stroll down the meat aisle was as appealing as a slaughterhouse tour at the end of a busy day. Small pools of blood that had leaked from hamburger and chicken packages dotted the surfaces of the white enamel meat cases, the blood at times indistinguishable from the rust that discolored the chipped veneer. The atmosphere did not encourage a leisurely appreciation of food, nor did you feel like engaging in more intimate acts of product selection such as touching, squeezing, or sniffing. The fear of prolonging the unpleasantness made “grab and go” the prevailing modus operandi.
It didn’t take too many trips to this sort of market before I was sufficiently motivated to go to a suburban grocery store. I was lucky; I owned a working automobile. Up to 60 percent of the residents in Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods did not (at that time 24 percent of the city’s population lived below the poverty level; 20 years later, it would climb to 31 percent). Nor, as I would find out later, did the city’s public transportation routes go to the suburban supermarkets…
Besides offering a cleaner and generally more inspiring shopping environment, the suburban store had another point in its favor: it was cheaper. While not every item in the suburban store was priced lower than in the city stores, I soon found that I was probably spending 10 to 15 percent less for my weekly grocery shopping than I had been in Hartford. This proved to be true even for chains that still operated stores in both the city and the suburbs: the suburban unit had lower prices than its city cousin. How could this be? I wondered. The chain bought from the same wholesale suppliers, the stores had roughly the same pay and staffing structures, and they were only a few miles apart.
As it turned out, my revelations as a new resident of Hartford elicited not much more than a knowing sigh from colleagues and neighbors. The fact that city stores were inferior to suburban ones was nothing new to them. They had been watching the slow but steady abandonment of the city by supermarkets for ten years. “Yes,” I was told on many occasions during my first year in the city, “the supermarkets have abandoned Hartford, and the poor, who can’t get to the suburbs, pay more.” “Supermarket abandonment” and “the poor pay more” became part of the lexicon of the organization I had come to lead, the Hartford Food System, and for many years to come, this prevailing understanding defined the food gap.
GROWING OBESE AND DIABETIC; GOING LOCAL AND ORGANIC
The corn don’t grow so good around the edges, so this year I ain’t planting any edges.
– Anonymous 80-year old Connecticut farmer
When my old farmer friend explained his corn planting method to me, I of course thought he was pulling my leg. But as time passed I began to wonder if his remark was a parable spoken by a crusty old fellow known as much for his mischief as his wisdom. My meditation led me to think that our understanding of communities, people, food, and health are always bringing us up to some kind of edge — we want to know what’s out there, how to push them, master them, or take away their roughness. As individuals we want to control the edges in our lives that are just out of reach or always in flux. I find myself at times compelled by a fervent hope that I might be healthier, happier, skinnier, or wealthier if I could unravel the mysteries that govern those dark outer limits of my soul. Sometimes we even merge our edges with those of another, which of course eliminates one set of edges but creates a whole set of new ones. In other words, the dance with edges can go on forever and may never satisfy the seeker. They may taunt or tease, occasionally illuminate or suggest, but like the bubble from a child’s plastic wand, they always explode when grasped.
Unlike the farmer who decided to avoid the unproductive edges of his life by simply not tending to them, some people have striven continuously to make their edges flourish by pushing them ever outward. This is the quest that I believe is undertaken by a growing number of Americans, who, for the last 20 years or more, have been seeking, among other things, better food and healthier, more satisfying lifestyles.
Ironically, their quest is shared by an entirely different group of people whose lives operate under a much less fortunate set of circumstances. Unlike the affluent and well educated, the edges of these people are not expanding, glowing, or presenting limitless opportunities. For these people, their edges are atrophying, their choices narrowing, and their control eroding. Their edges do not demarcate a place from which to explore unknown territory or embark on new adventures, but instead form a boundary that can rarely be crossed, and a prison wall that cannot be scaled.
Starting in the late 1980s, Hartford’s food landscape began the final act of its steady and sickening transformation. As the supermarkets packed up their wares and moved to the suburbs, they left behind a vacuum that was soon filled by the bottom-feeders of America’s food chain — shiny new fast food restaurants and gas station mini-marts. As a result, the city’s citizens went from being underfed to overfed in matter of 10 years.
At first glance, given the city’s high poverty rates, cheap fast food should be a blessing. If there are no supermarkets within easy reach, then people should be grateful for the clean, well-lit places that proffer nicely packaged, brand named merchandise, the thinking went. But in fact, such establishments thrive in areas of poverty and low education. While they presumably serve a community’s immediate needs for calories, they actually prey upon those who are weakened by insufficient money, choice, and knowledge. As a result of these factors, Hartford’s major food problem shifted from hunger to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In light of the soaring rates of diet-related diseases, across the nation as well as in Hartford, the high prevalence of unhealthy food outlets became a serious public health issue.
Originally published in Present Magazine.