JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One of the greatest challenges in the fight against hunger in the United States today is a food system that supplies nutritious foods into our communities – but not equally into every neighborhood. Food deserts – or areas where grocery stores don’t exist or aren’t accessible to the residents who live there – are too common, even in Jacksonville, Fla. The problem affects thousands of households.
On Thursday, April 19, community and business leaders from the First Coast gathered to discuss this issue and others as part of the Second Annual Status of Hunger event at The River Club. Dr. Oran Hesterman, founder and CEO of Fair Food Network, was the keynote speaker at the event, which was sponsored by Acosta Sales & Marketing and hosted by Bank of America on behalf of Nourishment Network North Florida.
“The time for change is now,” Dr. Hesterman told the assembled crowd about the broken food access system. “But to do it takes everybody’s help.”
Nourishment Network Executive Director Bruce Ganger outlined solutions that are being implemented by Nourishment Network to help close the food access gap in the 17 counties it serves in north Florida – including collaborative relationships with CSX, Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., Bank of America, EverBank, Beaver Street Fisheries, The Community Foundation, DuBow Family Foundation and the Jaguars Foundation. These relationships have allowed the food bank to dramatically increase its capacity to distribute food, which will result in nearly 18.5 million meals distributed in 2012.
Programs like mobile pantries, community gardens and the installation of electronic debit transactions for SNAP (food stamp) users at the Jacksonville Farmers Market are slowly bringing access to fresh foods into areas the food deserts where the need is great. But Ganger said more innovative solutions are needed.
“In a food desert, you can drive miles and never see a grocery store,” Ganger said. “What you will see is fast food establishments and plenty of convenience stores where bold headlines for liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets dominate the front of the buildings. People who live in food deserts have to travel miles, usually on public transportation, to get access to fresh food. “
Hesterman’s has worked for more than 25 years creating sustainable agriculture and food systems. One of his programs, Double Up Food Bucks, has been tremendously successful in Michigan. It provides access, economic incentives and economic development impact by steering food stamp recipients toward farmers markets in hopes of their families eating healthier while supporting local business and farmers.
For every $20 a family spends of its food stamp resources at the local farmer’s market, an additional $20 credit – or double up – will be issued that can be used to purchase more fruits and vegetables. Nourishment Network and the Jacksonville Farmers Market have already begun working on details to implement the program in Jacksonville, according to Ganger.
Hesterman said the effort to overcome food access challenges begins with local food banks. But the burden does not rest with food banks like Nourishment Network alone. Citizens need to become engaged in the process of solving the problem and become “solutionaries.”
“When I look at this problem, I think back to about 25 years ago,” Hesterman said. “In 1988, you couldn’t find a single political scientist who predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall. Through many forces working together, it happened one year later – and it changed our world forever. We will never know what hammer blow brought that wall down. And as such, we will not know which (food access program) can be the tipping point for change in our food system.”
The timing of Hesterman’s visit to Jacksonville coincides with the inaugural Duval County Food Summit, a public conversation to explore Jacksonville's food culture and its impact on access to safe and healthy foods for all members of our community. Hesterman will be the keynote speaker for the event on Friday night.