Read this article as originally published in Woman’s Day.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of households that are food insecure — meaning they don’t always have access to foods that meet their basic nutrient needs — remains higher than it was before the 2008 recession.
Rural populations, recent veterans and active-duty military families, and Native Americans are among the hardest hit. To grasp the issues fueling this silent epidemic, as well as how to fight them, Woman’s Day spoke to three women battling hunger in their communities.
During college, I spent a year taking my Native American grandfather to treatments for liver disease. Because it’s often a preventable condition, I was always asking his doctors, “How did this happen?” I had the same question during my part-time job taking elders from my community, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments, cleaning their homes, and helping with basic care. They were all suffering from diseases — colon cancer, diabetes, asthma — that barely appeared among our communities until about 100 years ago. The elders told me that they thought if they’d had access to traditional foods, they would be healthier.
The traditional Muckleshoot food system was incredibly nutrient-dense compared to what’s available in a supermarket. Think of the foods that are abundant in the Pacific Northwest: salmon, halibut, cod, shellfish, clams, mussels, oysters, seaweed. Foods like this are low-calorie and high-energy. One cup of stinging nettle, which was the traditional spring green, contains as much iron as a cup of kale and more calcium than a glass of milk.
In the Muckleshoot creation stories, we are taught that when we stop eating traditional foods, we lose our identity. That’s what brought me to the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, where I work as a coordinator. “Food sovereignty” basically means tribal people should have access to traditional foods, but there are all kinds of challenges to that. There are treaties in place that guarantee that certain tribes are entitled to take half of the fish available for harvest, but those rules aren’t being upheld. Our modern lifestyle doesn’t help: People have to take time off their jobs now to fish or harvest fruits and vegetables.
Through my work, I bring people together so they can help the community eat better. For example, we take groups huckleberry harvesting and ask them to pick a bucket for themselves and one to give away, usually to elders. When they bring that food back, the elders share stories and recipes with the harvester that they may never have passed on before. It turns out when you tell people, “You should eat better because your ancestors perfected these recipes for you,” they’re more likely to eat those foods, and more likely to feed them to their children.
When I was growing up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s, almost everybody had fruit and nut trees in their backyards, but not so much anymore. The Delta has such rich soil and a long growing season, but few people are using the land to grow food. So in 1999, I founded Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (MEGA) to get people gardening again and to help get healthy, local food back on our tables. We received funding through a community food project to assist with creating gardens in backyards, neighborhoods, and churches.
Most commercial farms around here grow industrial crops like corn and soybeans, while the fruits and vegetables at the grocery stores are from California, Florida, or another part of the world. So we’re working with these farmers to get them to contribute produce to the local community again. It seems to be working: We opened the first farmers’ market in the county nine years ago and brought one to Shelby last summer.
MEGA works with kids too. We have a school breakfast program, and we’re linked to the National Farm to School Network. We’ll have the students plant tomatoes, beans, or cucumbers in two cups, one for school and one for home. We encourage them to get Mom and Dad to plant the seeds in a garden or a pot. We’ll marinate and sauté green beans or asparagus and send that recipe home. We have provided funding for 57 school gardens in the past two years, and just got funding to start 25 more.
When people come by our food pantry, we encourage them to buy from the markets or from tailgaters, who park their trucks on street corners to sell fresh produce they’ve harvested. I’ll keep telling people about the benefits of eating fresh, local produce, and eventually changes will come.
In 2010, the military relocated our family from Illinois to San Diego, where the cost of living seemed astronomical. We no longer qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because our meager housing allowance was calculated as part of our income even though it’s paid directly to the military. Luckily, my daughter received free school lunch, and after our second child was born, we qualified for WIC, the government’s supplemental nutrition program for women with young kids.
We ate lots of pasta and rice — anything that was cheap, that we could stretch. I picked up canned vegetables from military food pantries. While we were in San Diego, my husband was deployed for eight months — he ate better while he was away than we typically did at home. I was actually a little resentful.
If the military could provide a supplemental grocery budget or help us qualify for SNAP, it would be incredibly helpful for families like ours. Then all of the money that we put toward groceries could go to bills and paying off debt. We could get to a point where we wouldn’t necessarily need food stamps, and then they’d be available for somebody else.
I want to be part of a movement to address military hunger issues, so I’ve begun to speak out about my family’s struggles through the anti-hunger organization Mazon. I’m hoping to get the word out that just being in the military actually made it harder to get the help we needed.
Mazon supports legislation like the Military Hunger Prevention Act, a bipartisan bill that would exclude the value of a military family’s housing allowance from calculations of income, making it easier for them to receive SNAP. This change, even if it doesn’t come in time to help us, would help others who come after us.
At least 40 million people — including one in six children — struggle with hunger in the U.S. But the problem isn’t scarcity of resources. “Our country has more than enough food for everyone,” says Lori Silverbush, who, along with Tim and Kristen Castree, created A Place at the Table, a nonprofit organization that gives citizens tools to end hunger. “We need to make sure that everyone can access it and afford it, and we need our leaders to make ending hunger a national priority.” For more from A Place at the Table, go to foodisfuel.org.