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A Smorgasbord of Options for a Healthier Food System

By Risa Wilkerson on April 22nd, 2015

Advocates across many disciplines and with differing viewpoints agree that our food system is broken. But with pervasive problems in every link of that system, there is less agreement about how to fix it, or even what the biggest problem is. Here are just a few of the most common complaints:

You don’t have to dig too deeply within any one link of the food system to see that each one is dependent on all the others. There are multiple layers, which means that there are multiple entry points to fixing the food system. So where, and how, can you get involved or involve others?

In our work at Active Living By Design (now Healthy Places by Design), we are privileged to connect with communities, agencies and organizations of all sizes that are working within (and sometimes around) the current food system to increase access to healthy food for all people. It is awe-inspiring to hear about their successes with partnerships, farmers, local governments, retailers and others. Here are just a few examples of innovative ways that groups have plugged in and developed strategies for addressing different areas of the food system:

Production: The Mystic Housing Developments, a public housing development in Somerville, MA, transformed its asphalt surroundings into green space for the immigrant-led Mystic Community Garden. New programming for youth and other non-profits grew from this garden, which created opportunities for the community to work together and reinvest in this once-overlooked space. Somerville also became the first community in Massachusetts to approve an urban agriculture ordinance, allowing more residents to grow their own produce.

Processing: I serve on the board of Farmer Foodshare, a North Carolina non-profit that connects local, healthy food to agencies serving food-insecure individuals. Unlike a traditional food bank, Farmer Foodshare brokers relationships in order to get produce straight from farmers to hunger relief agencies, and intentionally creates programs that support both groups. This increases farmers’ profit margins, improves agencies’ ability to provide healthier foods and also bolsters the local economy.

Distribution: More restaurants are serving healthy menu items thanks to the ¡Por Vida! program in San Antonio, TX. With support from the San Antonio Restaurant Association and others, the Metropolitan Health District works with the restaurants to share resources, meet nutrition standards and label healthy menu options with the ¡Por Vida! brand.

Consumption: In Philadelphia, PA, the Department of Public Health adopted the Health Promotion Council’s Out-of-School Time (OST) Healthy Living Guidelines, which mandate healthy snacks for approximately 20,000 youth participating in OST programs throughout the city. In some cases, the prescribed snacks may be the healthiest food choices available for children each day.

Feeling inspired? If you are interested in gathering more information, check out the USDA’s Food Atlas mapping tool or the Healthy Food Access Portal. If you are ready to advocate, then link in to your area food policy council, or start one of your own! Food policy councils, which range in formality and typically focus on the local food system, are popping up all over the country. Perhaps there are non-profit groups or government departments working within a part of the food system that piques your interest. Or you can simply strike up a conversation about food with your neighbors, local restaurant owners, school administrators or even a local farmer. Who knows what you might sink your teeth into!

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.