Three Healthy Meals, Seven Days a Week
“But those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness.” (Proverbs 14:22)
With a vision of three healthy meals seven days a week, for all people in McLennan County, the Food Planning Task Force was born. I was asked to be a co-organizer for a group of individuals representing many organizations. We set out to assess our local food system and to draft suggestions for our community in the form of a strategic plan. This spring we wrapped up the process by publishing a 60-page report outlining where our community is in regards to hunger as well as our vision for the future.
Although some of what we learned is surprising, much was confirmation that Waco faces many of the same struggles that the rest of our country and even the world face on a daily basis. Even though food has become cheaper, many do not have the resources to get enough food and many are only able to access inexpensive, unhealthy foods. So in Waco and increasingly around the world those that struggle with hunger also suffer from diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes.
The good news is that even as we were drafting the plan, some of the goals identified were being accomplished. Waco now has a thriving Downtown Farmers Market, our food pantries are working together to collect and share data, and we are closing the gap in the percentage of people who are eligible for food stamps and the number of people that actually receive them.
But we still have a long way to go, and it is imperative that we continue to work together to address the areas where need is greatest and where we can make the most impact. The main source of nutrition for people at risk of food insecurity is food they purchase themselves. The second is SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps). But as we listened, we heard many people report that they regularly face a decision between spending money for gas to drive across town to a grocery store or purchasing less healthy and more expensive foods at convenience stores.
Understanding this challenge presents opportunities to act. We have also learned of some creative solutions from around the country and World Hunger Relief, Inc. will be collaborating on evaluating which ideas may work here.
We also became even more aware that across all demographics food culture has been lost. People do not know how to cook the healthy foods their grandparents grew up eating. Despite these findings, our experience with school gardening has proven to us that given the opportunity, kids and adults learn to cook and enjoy healthy foods when they are invited into the kitchen. Incorporating the sharing and rebuilding of these skills and passions has been a growing part of our gardening program, and we are encouraging other organizations to make food preparation skills a priority as well.
School meals remain a significant area of opportunity as well. The school meals programs provided by the USDA have the ability to provide breakfast, afterschool meals, and summer meals, in addition to 20,000 lunches during the school year. Unfortunately, these programs are not reaching all of the kids in need, and students report that the meals can be lacking in quality. Improvements are being made locally to some schools with the addition of salad bars, the practice of growing vegetables on campus, farm-to-school programs, and by introducing fruits and vegetables as snacks. We are grateful for those in our districts trying to provide maximum nutrition in a program that needs improvements at the federal level. Education and advocacy efforts in which we are engaged with the Texas Hunger Initiative are beginning to see fruit in expanding the number of meals available, and we are hopeful that some of the improvements in quality will spread to more schools.
I am encouraged by the dedication of the hundreds of people who spend time assessing and planning. It is exciting to hear of the success of others in our community who are working on other areas of the plan as well. There is much that needs to be done for seniors and disabled people in our community. Pantries are working to provide more holistic care, there are efforts to rescue food that would otherwise end up in landfills, and the McLennan County Hunger Coalition is working hard to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and ideas. While we are not directly involved in all of these efforts, we are grateful that others in our community are filling these needs.
Through this planning process, I gained friends and co-laborers. I have confidence that these people, filled with love, grace, and knowledge, will lead Waco on a path that more fully embodies our call to feed the hungry. To find out more about this effort, visit the Food Planning Taskforce website. I plan to speak about it on Farm Day on October 26, and at churches for National Hunger and Homelessness Week November 18th to the 23rd. Follow our progress by reading the WHRI blog as well.
This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Matt Hess, Executive Director of World Hunger Relief, Inc. Would you like to write for the blog? If so, please email Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org. We would love to hear your thoughts on making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.