On Farms, Health and EBT

Not long ago, the Sustainable Table team took a trip out to the Bed-Stuy Farm. After a 45-minute subway ride from mid-town Manhattan, we emerged in Brooklyn under the same sunny sky but to a very different New York City landscape. Gone were the bustling sidewalks, skyscrapers and gourmet fast food – here were low, old buildings, some neat, some dilapidated, music blasts from car stereos, and pizza joints predominating.

As Reverends DeVanie and Robert Jackson, founders of the Bed-Stuy Farm and Brooklyn Rescue Mission, will tell you, their building may look decent, but the people inside are hungry. For those living on food stamps or relying on the mission’s food pantry, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is especially limited. Founded in 2002, the farm seeks to fill the fresh food gap and provide other essential amenities to the people of Central Brooklyn, where many are just one paycheck away from homelessness. So far, the effort has been a whopping success, providing fresh produce to over 4000 people each month and producing over 7,700 pounds of it a year. Not only does the farm feed local residents, it provides a sense of community and educates young and old about the importance of fresh food.

In many food pantries, it is rare to see fresh produce, even the wilted but still nutritious vegetables that most grocery stores discard. Common contributions include non-perishable goods such as canned vegetables, bottled water and dry pasta. Reverend Robert Jackson remembers a large donation of Godiva Chocolate around one Mother’s Day – not exactly the nutrition-packed food so many in this neighborhood lack.

Most people living below the poverty line do not have a community farm in their backyards. Many live in "food deserts" – areas where access to grocery stores is limited and fast food chains abound. I am lucky to live in a neighborhood with numerous grocery stores and healthy food outlets, but walk 10 blocks south and I would be hard-pressed to find a decent grocery store. In many such areas, McDonalds and Popeye’s spot the landscape, charging enticingly low prices.

When food stamps and food pantries are your only option, having a healthy diet can be challenging. An individual or family receives their monthly food stamp allotment at the beginning of each month. In order to stretch that money, many buy the cheapest products available. As a result, in the short term their families may be fed and full, which is obviously essential, but there may also be long-term harm to their personal health.

When people think about our failing healthcare system, they may ponder the lack of access to doctors, hospitals and medicines. Increasingly, though, health experts and policymakers view good nutrition as an important part of preventative healthcare. That’s because the most common preventable deadly diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes, are directly related to diet.

Recently there has been an effort to make Farmers' Markets more accessible to food stamp recipients. When the federal government switched from paper to electronic food stamps – known as EBT – Farmers' Markets were not equipped to accept the new form of payment, which requires an electronic reader. In the past few years this has begun to change, to the benefit of both farmers' market vendors and food stamp recipients, who can buy fresh food in season at the markets, sometimes getting better quality at a lower cost than what they would find at a grocery store, assuming they could even get to one. Correspondingly, elected officials, community activists, farmers and policymakers have been working to bring more farmers' markets to the low-income neighborhoods where food deserts are the norm.

While the idea of a farmers' market may sound frivolous in the face of widespread hunger and illness, it is actually a very viable solution to help fill the nutritional gap. With a farmers' market, there is no need to build a permanent structure, which makes it much quicker and easier than the months or years it can take to cite a supermarket. The success of a farmers' market in a food desert can also demonstrate the demand for better quality food, encouraging supermarkets to open in an underserved community. Meanwhile, access to fresh fruits and vegetables has been proven to promote health and when an impoverished community gains a farmers' market it is inevitably cause for celebration.

There are so many problems involving health, hunger and poverty in the United States that it can be difficult to judge which steps to take. There is much talk of action, and ideas are abundant, but implementation is more difficult. Yet, concrete work is being done by people like DeVanie and Robert Jackson, along with all of the farmers' markets that are making it possible for low-income people to share in the bounty. Those of us who can enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables are on a path to a healthier and more fulfilling life. Hopefully further substantial action will be taken to make us just part of a healthy majority.