Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review - Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty

Today I am reviewing Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty by Marke Winne. When I first picked this book up, I thought the focus was going to be on how sustainable farming practices, home and/or community gardens, farmers markets, co-ops, and CSAs could solve the problem of the food gap in this country. What I found, however, is that, while those topics get some mention, the focus was actually on various programs, both government and private sector, and the issue of food insecurity of poor, and more specifically, urban families. Had I realized this in the beginning, I likely would not have purchased the book, although after reading it I'm glad that I did.

The author has spent many years trying to help close the food gap, including 25 years as the executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford Connecticut. Much of the information presented in the book is based on his own experiences in the system. He presents many stories that illustrate the types of problems the poor face in getting access to affordable, nutritious food. Because the information comes from his own experiences, most is related to Connecticut and other New England states, although certainly applicable nation wide.

While I have always had a sense that the poor are limited in their food options, I had not realized the full extent until reading this book. The author does a good job of illustrating many ways in which the food system fails the poor, especially in urban areas.

Lack of downtown supermarkets is a topic that the author focuses on a great deal. Looking at this from a purely business perspective it's easy to understand why supermarkets have been leaving downtown areas to relocate to more suburban areas. Most of the large supermarket chains prefer buildings of certain shapes and dimensions, so they can use the same layouts for many stores, rather than creating a custom store layout for each. It is much easier to buy an empty lot, and construct a building to fit desired criteria than to find an existing building in a downtown area that will accommodate a pre-defined layout. Also, because these supermarkets rely on high volume sales, in order to make a profit from low-margin pricing, they must be able to accept a regular stream of large trucks to refresh their inventory. Most downtown locations are not set up for this, and attempting it would likely result in blocking traffic and causing other issues, especially in very busy areas.

Once the supermarkets relocate from downtown areas, however, the residents are left with only two options; shop at smaller, more expensive markets, or travel to the new supermarket locations. For most of us the choice is easy. We do much of our grocery shopping in London, which is a 45 minute drive. While it is a fairly long drive, it is worth it due to the increased options available and lower prices. Many poor, however, do not have this option. In downtown areas, many of the poorest families do not own cars. Driving several miles to do grocery shopping simply is not an option. According to the figures presented by the author the prices as many small downtown markets are as much as 25%-35% more than prices at suburban supermarkets. In order to save money, some people do choose to take the bus to larger supermarkets, when bus routes provide stops near those stores. This, however, presents several other problems. First is that in many areas there are few, or no, direct routes from low income urban centers to suburban supermarkets. What might require a 15 minute drive via car could require an hour or more ride on a bus. Another issue is that grocery shopping via bus limits the amount of groceries that can be purchased, as all purchases must be carried onto the bus, and often carried several blocks to and/or from the bus stop. This means that those taking the bus are unable to take advantage of the lower prices that buying in bulk offer. In other words, the poor, who can least afford the extra expense, are the ones who must pay more for their food, while those with higher incomes, who can afford to pay extra, are offered lower prices.

Throughout the years various groups have tried using different programs to help solve the problem of food insecurity for the poor. The author discusses several of these programs, and provides his theories as to why the programs did not have the desired effect.

The first of the programs discussed were food banks. The problem, it seems, with food banks, is that they quickly become a way for those in the food industry to get rid of unwanted food, rather than a way to provide quality food to those in need. While the result is that some quality food goes to those who need it, much of the donated food is low quality and is not nutritious. Apparently some of the donations end up being completely unusable, but the food banks are so desperate for donations that they can't afford to turn down any offer. The result is that volunteer hours are spent dealing with food that can't even be used, when that time could be much better spent performing other tasks.

Another of the programs discussed in the book, and one of the programs I am particularly interested in, are farmers markets. The idea of downtown farmers markets seemed, to those who began them, very logical. The thought was that, since many low-income families were not able to travel to supermarkets, the farmers markets would be a way of bringing fresh and nutritious food to them. In practice, however, many of the farmers realized that they could sell their products for more at farmers markets in more wealthy areas, so soon abandoned the downtown markets. Another issue is that any government assistance provided to the farmers markets was often aimed at helping the farmers, rather than helping the needy.

It is clear that the issue of food insecurity is a very complex issue. It is understandable that supermarkets and farmers make decisions to maximize their profits. Consider, though, how much better off we would be if profit was not the primary motivation for decision making. How different would our world be if decisions were made based on what was most beneficial to the community, rather than what would make the most money. The problem, though, is that those most likely to weigh the benefit to the community in decision making are those business owners who are part of the community, and therefore cannot offer products as cheaply as large corporations that rely on high-volumes and low-margin pricing. Still, its nice to dream of a world in which community, and the people in it, are more important than money.

It is also worth noting that some of those on the wrong side of the food gap are there voluntarily. There are many who claim they cannot afford to buy high quality food, especially organic fruits, vegetables, and meat, when in reality doing so simply isn't a priority. These people are not food insecure, in my opinion, they simply choose to prioritize other things. This, however, does not mean that food insecurity isn't a real issue. There are many people for whom gaining access to such food is difficult, and for whom affording such food, when available, is nearly impossible.

I don't know what the solution to the food gap in the US is, nor do I pretend to. This book, however, opened my eyes to challenges I had not previously considered. There is a real problem at hand, and I'm hopeful that a solution can be found.

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