Welcome to our blog series—At the Table: Baptist Fight Hunger!
For the past eleven years, I’ve lived in the zip code of South Carolina with the highest concentration of child poverty. With the generous support of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina, a few of us in this neighborhood have begun a little effort called Metanoia.
Issues around food are a significant concern to our neighborhood.
Each year, for example, we have an annual town hall meeting in the neighborhood where folks have an opportunity to democratically select their leading concerns. For several years running, the lack of a local grocery store has been the number one concern of neighborhood residents. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, I get a little depressed every time I walk into a church and see a box of donated food being collected to “alleviate hunger.”
My neighborhood is located in what is now termed a “food desert,” or a local area with no measurable access to nutritious food at a fair price. That means that my neighbors pay more for their groceries on average than people in wealthier communities, and it takes them longer to secure these groceries than their wealthier neighbors.
I have a few neighbors for whom a trip to the grocery store means close to two hours of transportation time on the local bus system. Too often folks are left with a strange choice between paying three times as much for poor quality food at a local convenience store or waiting in line for free food at one of the numerous breadline style distribution sites around our neighborhood.
Neither of these is a good option.
A few years back, our local nursing college did a study of the 14 convenience stories that serve as the only local option for buying groceries in the neighborhood. They found that between all of these stores combined there was less than 50 feet of shelf space for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Compare that to the over 2,000 feet of shelf space that was allocated for soft drinks and alcohol. And while the food people get for free from local food banks is more nutritious and certainly more affordable than that of convenience stores, it is generally very processed and carbohydrate rich. Giving away food also denies the community of valid systems of exchange that one has in a grocery store that also create jobs and economic stability for a community.
I know that around the world there are millions people for whom starvation is a real threat. These people live on less than a dollar a day and their life expectancy is tied in significant measure to a severe lack of food.
If our country were dealing with such issues, food collection in churches might be a better solution (see Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid for an opposing viewpoint that I happen to agree with).
In living in one of the most distressed communities in our nation for ten years, I’ve never seen anyone that was close to a threat of starvation.
Indeed, if one looks at the high incidence of disease in our neighborhood it is often food related, but they are not the diseases of people suffering from hunger. Instead, the diseases in our community (diabetes for example) are tied to poor nutrition and not lack of food.
People are eating. It is just that what they are eating is killing them slowly rather than the relatively quick death of starvation.
If the conversation becomes about nutrition, not about hunger, the efforts to help are going to change too. No longer can we say we are solving world hunger by bringing a can of high sodium low nutrition vegetables to the box in front of the church for the local food bank.
We have to begin to think in terms of making authentically nutritious food available through means that are more sustainable than food giveaways. In some parts of the country, this has meant starting food co-ops where those receiving donated goods at least have more of a say in what goes into the box (and a better chance at nutrition).
We are working on issues of nutrition in our neck of the woods as well.
Metanoia sponsors a local community garden that is organized by one of our homeowners who also happens to be a certified Master Gardener. The garden is ‘open’ which means that anyone can pick fruits and vegetables anytime they want. Each summer it produces several hundred pounds of food for the community, and neighbors have taken seedlings to start their own backyard gardens as well.
We are also working with our city to attract a full service grocery store to our neighborhood. The city has purchased and demolished a defunct mall in the neighborhood with the intent of attracting a new grocery store to the parcel.
Both of these efforts are built on more sustainable systems of exchange than a breadline where folks receive food for free. These efforts are aimed at creating a more healthy and sustainable food economy than the typical convenience store or breadline.
If the conversation within our own national borders begins to be about nutrition and not just hunger, we’ll find new solutions that will truly move distressed communities forward even if those solutions take us farther from the ease of the church food collection box that we’ve used to ease our consciences for so many years.
See additional information below about the state of hunger in South Carolina, courtesy of Map the Meal Gap, a project of Feeding America. Check out statistics for your area with this interactive online tool.
Previous posts in this series:
Part 7 — The Cleveland County Potato Project