I did my grocery shopping today. I cruised up and down the aisles of the local store, registering yet again myriad choices, colorful packaging, and sheer volume of food. I don’t mind the biweekly trip to the store, especially if I can avoid crowds.
Today was different though. I was struck as I pushed my cart through the produce section by a disturbing question: Who isn’t here?
I had read in recent news released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that ranks Ohio the third lowest in the United States for food security, only surpassing Arkansas and Missouri at the bottom. Further, the situation is getting worse in Ohio where, in many communities, chronically hungry people subsist on low-wage jobs.
I looked around the store and began to wonder what I would buy if I were on a tight income that reflected minimum wage work. What could I buy? Cereal is expensive because it is processed and shipped. Meat – same problem. Healthy fruits and vegetables are expensive because farming and shipping costs are rising. Organic food — something all should be able to enjoy — is completely out of financial range. I would end up buying potato chips, pasta and popcorn, and any sale item the grocery store deemed ready to purge as it neared its expiration date.
I heard someone say once that the U.S. is an interesting place, where the poor are fat and the rich are thin. Of course, this generalization, or perhaps even stereotype, neglects to address the occurrence of unhealthy eating based on good food becoming unaffordable, or food subsidies only providing the cheapest food possible. For example, I’ve worked in soup kitchens and with feeding programs where donations come in: pizza, pasta, sandwiches, mass-produced carbohydrates in large quantities to feed for efficiency rather than for health.
Why am I thinking about such things? I work at a theological school in Delaware that now has an organic farm on its land. Part of the work of the farm is to address how we understand food-to-table living, the nature of God’s providence through life-giving land use, and the challenge to food deserts existing all over the state, in rural and urban areas, where the only grocery store is a mini-mart at a gas station.
Ohio is a state that boasts 14 million acres devoted to farm operations. Indeed, in 2012, Ohio was ranked 13th in the U.S. in terms of the total value of agricultural products sold. Yet the data doesn’t tell the full story. Small towns that may not have any grocery stores are surrounded by fields of growing crops that mostly are shipped away or used to feed animals. Inner-city neighborhood dwellers often have to take a bus to get anywhere near fresh food offerings. What is going on?
There are a number of economic answers to my question but, suffice it to say, as a person of faith, I am convinced that we have to move quickly into local economies with food production in mind. If we act upon our faith, we don’t simply give charitably at soup kitchens; we look at the business models and area development (or lack thereof) that create food deserts. We address systems that keep children hungry, rather than demand that individual adults pull themselves “up by their bootstraps” (even those who may be working two jobs to pay the rent and buy shoes).
One of the richest nations on earth has working poor who don’t get enough, or the right things, to eat. There is something deeply wrong here, and my beliefs do not allow me to be intentionally ignorant about the matter. Every church, temple and synagogue has potential to teach and start gardening with neighbors. It’s time to do so for the sake of the community and the world. But especially for the children.
Lisa Withrow is dean and vice president of academic affairs at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, East Ohio Conference.