December 2015 Features

Food justice

Urban Creators

Locally and globally, Mawrters are proposing solutions to the challenges of food insecurity.

By Will Bunch

There are moments when you can stand in the middle of a paint-splashed oasis called Philadelphia Urban Creators, near the corner of 11th and Dauphin in North Philadelphia, and almost forget that you are in the center of one of America’s poorest zip codes.

For decades, the triangle-shaped lot was home to an abandoned factory. But in just a few years, volunteers from the neighborhood joined with students from nearby Temple University to clear every inch of ruin and paint scores of dumped tires that now ring a green, verdant property dotted with sheds and greenhouses in vibrant Caribbean hues.

But the heart of the Philadelphia Urban Creators project is food: rows of tomato plants and cornstalks, herbs like sage and parsley—all nurtured and harvested by residents of the nearby rowhouses with help from students. Some of this urban farm’s produce is sold to upscale restaurateurs in Philadelphia, but the bulk of it ends up on the stoves of local residents.

For Allison Hayes-Conroy ’03, a Temple assistant professor of geography and urban studies and a leader in the upstart field of critical food studies, the emotional connection between residents, this triangle of land, and the food grown here is an important—and often overlooked—step toward nourishment in the inner city. “I’m interested in what food does, what food allows,” she says. “What Urban Creators is so good at doing is building connections—what I call affective connections, or emotional or visceral connections—between people and the land, people in their urban territory.”

The Temple academic is one of a small group of social researchers who are taking the conversation about poverty, hunger, and obesity to a new place. Their aim is to solve the contradictions of poor nutrition by looking at food not simply as the sum of its calories but as a social phenomenon rich in cultural and political overtones.

Roughly a generation ago, researchers warned of problems about the way we eat. Studies showed that the rate of obesity among children and teenagers in the U.S. had tripled between the early 1980s and 2000. Some of the worst obesity rates were found in poor cities and rural areas where families were eating too much cheap, high-calorie food. Fruits and vegetables weren’t available because supermarkets had abandoned low-income areas, even as fast-food joints multiplied.

Advocates rallied for new grocery stores to bring produce to the inner city, and activists joined with nutritionists to promote the value of a well-balanced diet and push for healthier options in school cafeterias. The results have been mixed, and better information hasn’t always led to better diets. The U.S. government estimates that more than 49 million Americans—nearly one out of every six—have experienced food insecurity. In less-developed nations, hunger is an even greater problem, and the obstacles even more steep.

It is a dilemma that a growing number of researchers with Bryn Mawr ties—Allison Hayes-Conroy and her sister Jessica Hayes-Conroy ’03; Carolyn Hart ’79, who runs a federally funded international nutrition project; and BMC Professor Thomas Vartanian, a leading expert on the food-stamp program—are tackling with a variety of novel approaches.

Food and Community

Jessica Hayes-Conroy ’03, an assistant professor in women’s studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (and Allison’s twin), looks at the ways that gender, race, and class affect people’s food choices. With her sister, she has studied people’s emotional connections to their diet.

“Nutrition needs to be done differently,” she says. “We need to find ways of practicing nutrition that allow for more diversity—in terms of culture, in terms of bodies, in terms of communities, all sorts of things.” Some of the biggest problems arise when ethnic groups are pressured to conform to the dietary norms of White, Western cultures. She cites the suggestion to replace ghee—the clarified butter used in Indian recipes—with olive oil, even though the nutritional benefits aren’t clear and the emotional bond for South Asian cooks is strong. “Nutrition is not politically or culturally neutral, though we frequently discuss it as such. This needs to change.”   

The goal of critical nutrition is to better understand the complex social causes behind dietary disease, “rather than blaming the individual, or assuming that a lack of knowledge is at fault,” she says. While most nutrition intervention strategies focus on the question of how to change food behaviors, she explains, critical nutrition is centered on the question of how to change power inequities.

For sister Allison, interest in the intersection between food and community dates back to Bryn Mawr. A growth and structure of cities major, she was intrigued by what she’d seen growing up in South Jersey, where she watched suburban subdivisions gobble up acres of farmland even as residents clung to rural rites like the annual Cranberry Festival.

“That was my entry into food studies,” she says. At Temple, her critical food research has focused on food adequacy among rural Colombian women who have been displaced by the country’s armed conflict and end up struggling for the survival of their families on Medellín’s big-city streets.

Her research reveals that government programs might do little to benefit many of these women, largely because the food handed out bears little connection to that which nourished them in the countryside. “People who grew up providing for themselves,” says Allison Hayes-Conroy, “then suddenly moved to the city, have a completely different relationship with food.” For example, “wellness flour”—a government staple handed out as a supplement for soups and other dishes—is widely reviled by the recipients. “That’s like a metaphor for how we often deal with issues of food insecurity—we’ll just give them vitamins and calories, but that’s not all that goes into a nourishing relationship with food,” she says.

The Cost of Nutrition

Closer to home, Thomas Vartanian, a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, is interested in the problem of how government aid programs can better feed the poor. His recent work has focused on the role of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps).

Earlier this decade, Vartanian co-authored an influential report that debunked the notion that a young mother enrolled in the program developed a long-term dependency on government assistance. In another study, he looked into whether urban residents in the SNAP program experience higher rates of obesity because they potentially survive on less expensive, less healthy foods. Vartanian compared the body-mass index (BMI) of food-stamp recipients in poorer neighborhoods, which tend to have fewer food outlets, to that of people in higher-income neighborhoods, which tend to have more options. The results suggest that those who received food stamps in the higher-income areas also had higher, less healthy BMI values, suggesting that cost—not availability—is the biggest driver of the food choices. These findings suggest that families might be trying to stretch their government aid until the end of each month, and so buy cheaper, high-calorie items rather than higher-quality, and higher-cost, items.

To improve the nutrition habits of people in the SNAP program, Vartanian says, “What we really need to do is lower the relative cost of healthy foods.” He points to programs like the U.S. Healthy Incentives Pilot as a way to promote healthier diets. That project, piloted in 2011, gave families on food stamps a discount for buying healthier foods and indeed found their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, increased by about 25 percent.

The Global View

For the past four years, Carolyn Hart ’79 has worked as director of John Snow, Inc.’s SPRING project (Strengthening Partnerships, Results, and Innovations in Nutrition Globally), an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development that develops strategies to fight malnutrition in poor nations such as Haiti and Kyrgyzstan.

SnowIn a village in Jessore District, Khulna Division, Bangladesh, a graduate of one of SPRING’s Farmer Nutrition Schools displays pumpkins she has put aside for seeds. Photo credit: Carolyn Hart/John Snow, Inc.

SPRING country programs use context-specific approaches such as holding classes for pregnant women and new mothers in Bangladesh that emphasize cultivating vegetable gardens or rearing chickens, or bolstering existing nutrition aid groups for orphans and vulnerable children in Nigeria. A major thrust of their work is to look at the broader array of practices—better handwashing to prevent the spread of disease, greater use of family planning, and the like—that can affect whether families get enough to eat. “In the nutrition field,” Hart says, “we talk about things like handwashing and contraception, not just breastfeeding, micronutrient supplementation, and diets because improving hygiene and having fewer children are known to be nutrition-sensitive actions.”

A history and French major, Hart never expected to run a nutrition-related program. But she credits her college exposure to the Enlightenment notion of the social compact with helping her decide on public health as her career. “The things I was exposed to at Bryn Mawr have underpinned my work in public health, and they are why I went into public health, as an expression of policy and of comity,” she says.

Currently in seven nations and on the verge of expanding to two more, the SPRING program typically begins its work with a sweeping analysis of nutritional issues related both to stunted growth and to infant and new-mother health and then develops a plan that encompasses farming practices, health care, cultural norms—and meals. Says Hart, “We look at agriculture and education and all these social impacts on people’s choices and behavior that are not necessarily a product of the health system.”

A Small World

Back in North Philadelphia, the effort to launch an urban farm was in part inspired by a level of deprivation that rivals that of the nations where Hart’s SPRING works; some 39 percent of Philadelphia’s children live in poverty, according to the latest government figures, and the rate is much higher on the blocks that surround the parcel worked by Urban Creators.

Food insecurity is a challenge that crosses borders, and Allison Hayes-Conroy wants activists from different countries to share their knowledge. “For many I work with in Colombia,” she says, “it’s exciting to meet people and get a sense that what they’re doing is important beyond Medellín—to have a sense that they’re part of a network.”

To help create that network, she’s hoping to bring some of the food activists she knows in Medellín up to Philadelphia to see what’s been done here, and to get some Philadelphia gardeners down to Colombia. Because when it comes to solving nutrition problems, it really is a small world.