By Matt Hess
Have you ever thought about how difficult it is to get nutritious food if you don’t have a car? The USDA defines a “food desert” as a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Research links food deserts to diet-related health problems like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. 57,983 people in Waco live in USDA-declared “Food Desert” tracts; that is 46.5% of our total population. This issue received quite a bit of attention recently when two HEB stores merged into one and a third HEB closed its doors – creating even greater distances between affordable, healthy food and some of the people who need it. Unfortunately, it seems like many of the areas where people most need access to fresh fruits and vegetables are not the most practical, from a business point of view, for a food retailer to set up shop.
With all that in mind, World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI) is launching a new program called the “Veggie Van.” The Veggie Van, a mobile vegetable stand, will allow us to sell vegetables for short periods of time when large crowds gather, i.e. at the end of the school day or after a church service. This will allow us to keep our costs low while providing vegetables in a way that is convenient to families.
The Veggie Van idea is the result of study, careful thought, conversation, experimentation and collaboration around the subject of nutrition in Waco. In the last several years there have been numerous assessments and community input meetings conducted about this issue. The WHRI staff and I attended as many of these meetings as possible.
Ten years ago WHRI completed an assessment of food issues in our area. This assessment led us to pursue school gardening as a way to address a need expressed by the community and to develop relationships for future efforts at improving the nutrition of those in Waco. School gardens are still an important part of our strategy, this year there are 5 schools that are visited weekly by our interns. In these programs I have seen students eagerly trying new vegetables as they develop skills in gardening and food production. As students’ interest in healthy eating increased, we became more aware of food deserts in our community. We encourage students to eat healthily but the environment in their neighborhoods and lack of access to fresh produce makes it difficult for their families to change their eating habits.
Through the Act Locally Waco book club I read the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. My short synopsis of the book is that to make personal or group changes three things need to be in place: (1) knowledge of why the change needs to be made, (2) motivation to change, and (3) an environment that allows for this change. Our work with the school garden clubs touches on the first two — we have seen an increase in knowledge and motivation about eating healthy foods. We are also working with many partners who provide education about good nutrition, cooking skills and how to stretch food dollars. Building an environment that allows for change is more challenging, we think the Veggie Van will be a good way to begin to address that issue.
Starting, January 14, 2015, the Veggie Van will be selling vegetables with the congregation of St. Luke AME church on the corner of Elm St. at Church St. near the Paul Quinn Campus. At WHRI we hold tightly to the value of working with and supporting other organizations. One of the most exciting things about the Veggie Van is that it will let us add value to work St. Luke and other churches and organizations are already doing in Waco. St. Luke has a great proactive food ministry including a community garden and an outreach program that helps people sign up for SNAP benefits (food stamps) right at the church. The Veggie Van will be a natural supplement to these existing programs. As we look for other locations we are hoping to work with other organizations who are already doing good work in the area of food and nutrition.
We would love to include you in our holistic food ministry. I hope you come and visit us at the van and pick up some great locally grown food for your family. We will be looking for volunteers to help on the van and to help spread the word throughout the community. If you are interested in helping, or if you are just curious, give us a call (254-799-5611), drop us an e-mail (email@example.com) or come see us at one of these opening week events:
- January 14th – 3:00 PM – the Veggie Van opens for business for the first time at St. Luke AME.
- January 14th – 6:00 PM – the Veggie Van blessing ceremony at St. Luke AME.
- January 17th – 11:00 AM – ribbon cutting at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.
- January 19th – 11:00-2:00 – The van will visit all of the gardens participating in the MLK Day Day of service the around Waco. We will have more details on our Facebook soon.
For more information about the Veggie Van Project and how you can get involved, please take a moment to visit the website: worldhungerrelief.org/veggie-van, or follow us on social media (Facebook: facebook.com/whriwaco. Twitter:@whriwaco). If you are interested in hosting the van at your church, organization, or other location please fill out the application here. If you would like to contribute financially, we would sure appreciate it. Here’s the link: Donate.
Today’s Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Matt Hess. Matt grew up in Boulder, CO. He came to Waco to attend Baylor where he received a Bachelors of Science in Education in History. Afterwards, he stayed in Waco and taught at a school for troubled youth. As a teacher, he saw the difference that working with animals and gardens made on his students, and he began volunteering at WHRI partially with the intention of developing more skills in agriculture and community development. Matt joined WHRI as the Education Director in 2006 years and 6 years later transitioned to his role as Executive Director.
The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“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.