Food deserts are back in the news here in Richmond with the premier of a documentary, “Living in a Food Desert,” at the Richmond International Film Festival. First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who has made food security her signature cause, attended the screening and addressed the audience. More than 300,000 Virginia children are food insecure, she said. “There needs to be a forceful call to action.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams picked up on the remarks in a column on March 3rd. Mrs. McAuliffe, he wrote, “called it ironic that a state whose $70 billion agriculture industry feeds folks around the world is not reaching its neediest citizens.”
Yes, it is ironic indeed. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) to more people than ever in the program’s history. It is ironic that food insecurity exists despite the existence of school lunch and school breakfast programs for disadvantaged children. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the efforts of groups like Tricycle Gardens to encourage inner-city Richmond residents to raise their own food. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the mobilization of the not-for-profit community through food banks, food pantries and church food drives in an unprecedented giving away of free food and free meals. It is ironic that Richmond’s Feedmore food bank has originated as an institution that provided food for emergency situations into one that fills chronic, ongoing needs. Food insecurity, one Feedmore official told me two years ago for an article I never completed, was becoming “the new normal.”
Everyone quoted by Williams laments the terrible state of affairs. And let me just say, before being condemned as a heartless, evil, conservative, that it is a terrible thing for children to go hungry. But when food insecurity evolves from a sometime thing to a permanent state affairs — and seven years after the Great Recession, it’s getting a little hard to continue blaming the economic downturn — it makes me wonder if we’re doing something wrong.
Here’s my question: How, despite the funneling of unprecedented government and philanthropic dollars to the feeding of the poor, has food insecurity has gotten worse? There are clues in Williams’ column.
A recurrent theme Sunday was that this issue represents an opportunity for folks to take charge of their lives by developing socially conscious economies around food.
It is important for any solution around food deserts to not be paternalistic in the sense that you just come in and drop food off and you’re gone,” Duron Chavis, project director of [Virginia State University’s] Indoor Farm, says in the documentary.
“The key word there is empowerment,” said panelist John Lewis, director of Renew Richmond. “We have the opportunity to empower communities that live in food deserts, especially low-income individuals, to take their food system back.”
Now, couple those comments with this: “As disciples of the Lord, we are commanded to feed the hungry. And we take that commandment seriously,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Sanders of Mount Olive Baptist Church. “We have quickly become one of the largest food pantries in the city of Richmond.”
To what extent does the commandment “to feed the hungry” conflict with the imperative to “empower” the poor? Does society’s impulse to feed the poor result in behaviors that are the opposite of empowering? Why don’t poor people grow their own garden plots? Why don’t they organize community gardens? There are plenty of vacant plots of land in the East End of Richmond, the city’s biggest food desert. There are plenty of groups, like Tricycle Gardens, that are willing to provide the know-how. Why isn’t it happening? Is it possible that the more outsiders take on the obligation to feed Virginia’s poor, from Richmond’s East End to Appalachia, the less they do for themselves?
Are our charitable impulses making worse the very problem we decry? That’s the one question no one seems to be asking.
(This column first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on March 3, 2015)
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