Growing local, grassroots food security

It’s mid-November. The leaves on the trees have all fallen, with the exception of the few that still stubbornly cling to their branches. It’s getting colder. Clocks have been moved back an hour, so night comes early. Migratory birds are gathering or headed south. And it’s crunch-time for animals like chipmunks, and non-migratory, resident bird species (e.g. chickadees, cardinals, jays, nuthatches, some woodpeckers, and crows) that, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have been stockpiling or caching food for a while now in preparation for the coming of winter.

For many of us, the Thanksgiving holiday marks the onset of winter. The holiday brings family and friends together for warm, memorable reunions, time-honored traditions and scrumptious, festive meals. We relax, celebrate our good fortune, and just enjoy one another’s company, pausing to appreciate the things we hold dear. We say grace and give thanks, as the turkey is carved and the cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are passed around. And Mom … it smells delicious!

Food insecurity: Worldwide and in the United States

As we enter the holiday season, my thoughts turn to the more than 820 million people worldwide, including upwards of 42 million Americans who are, right now, living without reliable access to adequate amounts of affordable, nutritious food.

Eating nutritious food is crucial to maintaining a healthy life. Yet, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 17 million American households were food insecure, in 2022. Of those households, 6.8 million had very low food security, meaning food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year, because of limited resources. Children were food insecure at times, in 3.3 million of those households. USDA findings come from an annual survey of nearly 32,000 households conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Families facing food insecurity are known to manage by reducing the amount of food they eat and the quality of food served. Nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables are frequently replaced with foods that are both higher in calories and lower in nutritional value — often processed foods loaded with carbohydrates and sugar.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, 18% of 2- to 9-year-old American children who are living in extreme poverty (household income below 50% of the poverty line) suffer from obesity.

Increasing community food security

Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, estimates emergency food clients’ median annual household income is about $9,000 and that roughly 15% of all Americans have accessed food through one of its 200 member-food-banks.

Although most low-food-access neighborhoods are urban, food insecurity is an ever-increasing problem in communities everywhere. More than 2 million low-income families living in rural areas are food insecure.

Increasing access to fresh, healthy, affordable, locally-grown food in at-risk communities can help alleviate that food insecurity. In fact, food security is strongest when food is produced and distributed locally. Locally-grown food is fresher and, as such, more nutritious. And consistent access to nutritious food helps us maintain our energy levels and immune system function, which can help prevent chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, reducing the healthcare costs associated with those diseases.

Partners in food security

Building food security requires community support for strengthening food systems and healthy food production initiatives — and for increasing accessibility to that healthy food. Across the country, partnerships made up of community residents, local governments, public agencies, civic organizations and the private-sector, are employing a variety of strategies to provide healthier, safer food for low-income families, including those with dietary restrictions, and to help ensure that a growing number of struggling households will be able to get the healthy meals they need.

Through a partnership with the local JCEO food pantry program and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, families experiencing food insecurity are reaping the benefits of harvests of garden-fresh vegetables and herbs from two greenhouses erected on land alongside the building housing the JCEO food distribution warehouse and commercial kitchen, in Malone. The partnership allows for the cultivation and distribution of exceptionally-fresh produce to food-insecure neighborhood households.

Peat- and topsoil-filled 24-inch high raised beds inside the greenhouses allow Cooperative Extension Educator and Greenhouse Manager, Laura Trudell, a community-minded, seasoned gardener with her roots in horticulture, to grow garden-fresh produce, including tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, beans, and much more, during an extended growing season, by starting plants early in the spring and harvesting for distribution well into the fall.

Food never goes to waste and is often harvested in the morning and distributed that day. Produce that is not immediately used is kept in JCEO’s produce warehouse and cold storage facility to protect its quality, and extend its longevity. (Food that arrives in bulk from out of the area is also stored there.) It serves as a wonderful example of a modern food pantry program going the extra mile.

So far this year, people in need have received nearly 1,100 pounds of garden-fresh produce from the greenhouses.

Only the beginning

This is just the beginning. If everything goes well, there will be an educational component to the project, as well. The Cooperative Extension system works to improve community health by promoting good nutrition and nutrition education. One function of the Cooperative Extension mission is improving the well-being of families through strength-based programs that educate, influence public policy, and help families put research-based information to work in their lives. And Franklin County Extension will be augmenting this project with workshops and classes in nutrition, home food production, food preservation, composting, and much more.

Give thanks

The holiday meal offers a unique opportunity for thanksgiving and reflection. It’s an often-cherished time of fellowship and nourishment. So this year, as we partake of the food set before us, let’s not forget those who may not have a full table before them.

May the simple act of eating remind us of God’s provision and care. And may our hearts be stirred with compassion, moving us to reach out and share His blessings with those less-fortunate.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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