Uprooting the barriers to healthy food access
MEC pilots CSA shares as a tool to fight childhood obesity and hunger
While legislative advocacy will always be at the heart of Michigan Environmental Council’s work, we’ve learned that sometimes we have to roll up our sleeves and lead on-the-ground pilots to support our policy goals. Nowhere has this been truer than our work on childhood obesity and healthy food access.
A third of Michigan’s children are obese—a rate that has tripled since the 1970s. Children who struggle with obesity are likely to remain overweight into their adult years and grapple with long-term health impacts including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—costing the state $3 million in medical costs every year.
Parallel to our obesity crisis runs a related problem—hunger. While the two may seem paradoxical, they are, in fact, closely linked. Fruits and vegetables often cost more than “junk” food – food low in nutritional value and/or high in sugar or fat content—leading many low-income families to opt for inexpensive, calorie-rich items to meet their families’ needs.
We know what needs to change: families need affordable access to fresh fruits and vegetables. What MEC and our partners at Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan lacked was data that would convince lawmakers that our food policies are ripe for changing.
This summer we stepped outside the halls of the Capitol to pilot a community supported agriculture (CSA) program that provided fresh produce to 120 underserved families. We asked them about their eating habits before and after, and plan to use our findings to advocate for needed policy changes to boost healthy eating and reduce Michigan’s childhood obesity rate.
Digging into the roots
Behind our childhood obesity crisis is a complex web of factors. Farm subsidies have driven down the price of junk food ingredients, while a dearth of supermarkets and inadequate transportation has left many underserved communities reliant on neighborhood convenience stores.
For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has subsidized or insured “commodity crops” such as corn, wheat, and soy. While originally designed to keep food costs low, these subsidies have encouraged farmers to overproduce, further driving down prices. Corn, wheat and soy are not inherently unhealthy. However, these commodity crops are rarely eaten “as is,” and are instead used to manufacture cheap sweeteners and additives in junk food.
The USDA says that fruits and vegetables should make up half our diets, but the agency doesn’t subsidize produce to the same extent as commodity crops and we see the consequence at the checkout counter. When you compare them calorie-for-calorie, fruits and vegetables are 100 times more expensive than junk food.
The high price tag of fresh produce isn’t the only obstacle to healthy eating. 1.3 million Michiganders, including 300,000 children, don’t have access to a supermarket. Many of these families lack transportation too, leaving them reliant on convenience stores where produce (if it’s even available) is often low quality.
When faced with the choice of soggy produce or inexpensive dinners that can live indefinitely in a freezer, the choice to eat healthily is not always as palatable—or much of a choice at all.
While hunger and food access are often painted as an urban problem, the crisis is impacting rural communities too. Three-quarters of the counties in the U.S. with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural communities often surrounded by farms.
With nearly 10 million acres of farmland and Michigan’s position as the number two state for crop diversity, our state is well-positioned to make healthy food a more affordable option. However, first we need to change the policies that shape the price and availability of produce.
Weaving CSA shares into food assistance programs
Thanks to a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, we were able to pilot a no-cost community supported agriculture (CSA) program that provided affordable access to local produce for 120 families in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Lansing.
We were drawn to the CSA model because we know it works. For an annual fee, families receive a “share” of a local farm and a weekly box of fresh produce during the summer months. Research shows that families who subscribe to CSAs are healthier: they are more likely to cook at home, avoid fast food and eat leafy greens.
CSAs are also a win for the environment, as well as MEC’s sustainable agriculture goals. Shares typically come from local farms, requiring fewer transportation miles and pesticides, while also providing a boost to the local economy.
The CSA model works well for local farmers: they get the growing season’s revenue upfront and have a guaranteed customer base, minimizing risk. Instead of worrying about marketing and distribution, they can focus on farming and harvesting during season.
But there’s one distinct drawback—the upfront cost to join a CSA puts local produce out of reach for many low-income families.
One in three American children who struggle with food insecurity relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—the country’s largest food assistance program. Under current law, SNAP recipients can only spend two weeks’ benefits at one time, which is not enough to cover a full 20-week harvest season. It’s a policy ripe for change, and our CSA pilot program is providing us the data to make our case.
Local farms are transforming our food landscape
We partnered with three local farms that played a big role in the success of our CSA pilot program. Beyond feeding families in need, the farms are part of a larger movement of Michiganders working to improve food access and build more vibrant, self-sustaining communities.
The Farm at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti is the first hospital-based farm in Michigan. In addition to providing fresh produce for hospital patients, the farm also runs a pick-your-own CSA program. Farms throughout the area contribute food, and CSA subscribers build their box on pick-up day.
The Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit is a program of North End Christian Community Development Corporation and is the largest urban farm in Detroit’s North End. They provide healthy food and work to deepen community ties with art, design, and performance spaces.
Lansing Roots is a 10-acre farmer incubation program run by the Greater Lansing Food Bank. They provide land, equipment, and training to new farmers, many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. Lansing Roots is helping these new residents get on their feet and, in return, they grow the produce for the farm’s CSA program and extra yields go to feed their own families and communities.
Fostering a love for veggies
It takes time and skill to transform vegetables into a delicious meal—that’s why, in addition to policy change, education is critical. MEC can cook up a policy analysis, but we’re not chefs—fortunately, the local farms we partnered with doubled as healthy food educators.
Researchers say that even when we improve access to fresh produce, old habits can stand in the way—perpetuating unhealthy eating and obesity. In an effort to reshape habits, every family in our CSA program received a weekly newsletter with recipes and information on how to store, can and dry ingredients in each week’s box.
Lansing Roots carefully cultivated their veggie boxes to be balanced and fun. Each week’s box had core elements including root vegetables and cooking greens, but also fun or interesting veggies like pie pumpkins and squash.
“We want to help kids get a taste for vegetables,” explains Ben Sommers, manager of Lansing Roots Farm. “Instead of asking for Twinkies, we want kids to say, ‘Mom, I want these cherry tomatoes.’”
Getting kids to eat their veggies is no easy feat, but the CSA pilot did provide a boost—70% of children in the program have asked for fruits or vegetables as a snack. That’s not the only impressive stat to emerge from our pilot CSA program:
- 94% of families have been eating more variety of fruits and veggies
- 84% learned new cooking and preparation methods
- 97% tried new fruits and vegetables
- 74% said that the CSA had improved their health
We’re still crunching the data, but our pilot program has shown that providing affordable access to local produce for low-income families via subsidized CSAs leads to healthier lifestyles.
Our next steps are to share the success of our program and secure funding to expand our CSA pilot to more families in 2018. Our ultimate goal is to use the program’s success (and data) to advocate for much-needed changes to food assistance policy because all families, regardless of income or geography, should have access to healthy food.
By Katie Parrish, MEC