Eating ourselves to death

Aug 21, 2007 at 7:11 pm

What is food security, how secure is Louisville’s food supply, and does being poor have to mean an unhealthy diet?

Eat responsibly.
    The preeminent Kentucky poet and essayist Wendell Berry delivered that advice to the city folk here at an event last month. He’d been asked what they could do about the decline of farming and agricultural life in America.

Photo by Cliff Hilton
Photo by Cliff Hilton
Berry recognized, however, that his righteous directive needed elaboration. The problem with eating in America, as he explained in a 1989 essay, “The Pleasure of Eating,” is that most urbanites are passive consumers. We sit down before every meal without a sense of its quality or cost. “And the result is a kind of solitude,” Berry wrote, “in which the eater may think of eating as, first, a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier.”

With citizens divorced from food at every crucial step, questions about freshness, production cleanliness, the sort of chemicals used and the effects of long-distance transportation remain largely unspoken. Few know how susceptible our national food infrastructure is to a number of crises — from massive contamination to transportation failures. Fewer still know specifically the challenges of our growing metropolis.

“Louisville faces many of the same risks that any U.S. city would,” says Kelly C. Thompson, manager of Metro United Way’s Southwest Resource Center. Thompson is one of the many food justice advocates who work tirelessly to raise awareness about the affordability and quality of our local food system. At the top of Thompson’s list is acquainting Louisvillians with the basic definitions of food security.

“If a person on the street can’t answer or address why and how these issues affect them,” Thompson said, “then we aren’t helping them frame the issue.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” and the “ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” — without relying on emergency supplies, scavenging or stealing. Therefore, in its simplest terms, food security is a situation in which all residents of a city have access to affordable and nutritious food in their communities.

food pyramid: Instant classic: The United States Department of Agriculture has been pushing this guide to healthy eating for years
food pyramid: Instant classic: The United States Department of Agriculture has been pushing this guide to healthy eating for years
For Louisville that means acknowledging that significant portions of our population live in marooned areas that are best described as food deserts. At the grassroots level, one of the organizations banging the drums loudest about Louisville’s food crisis is the Community Farm Alliance, which is headquartered in Frankfort. CFA established a satellite office in Louisville four years ago and has become well-known for its farmers markets in the Portland and Smoketown neighborhoods. The alliance published a report in February 2006, “Why it’s Easier to Get a Burger than Broccoli on West Broadway,” that provided significant evidence about food insecurity issues, specifically in Louisville’s urban core in the West End, Portland and East Downtown neighborhoods — areas that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would describe as either “so poor” or “so black.”

For example, East Downtown, which includes the neighborhoods of Phoenix Hill, Smoketown and Shelby Park, is 68 percent African-American with an average median household income of $14,333. That is almost three times less than the median in Louisville Metro, according to the CFA report. In the West End, which includes the Shawnee, Chickasaw, Algonquin, California, Park Hill and Portland neighborhoods, the minority population is 79 percent, with a slightly better median income of $20,900. Embedded in this matrix of racial poverty is the troubling specter of far fewer healthier food options.

Let’s begin with a classic problem: the lack of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. The CFA’s report found that Louisville has one full-service grocer per 12,500 residents. But in West Louisville, that ratio is an alarming one grocery store for every 25,000 residents, with no superstores or natural food stores. The one consistent supermarket provider for residents of the West End, Portland and East Downtown neighborhoods has long been Kroger.

Operating in Louisville since 1938, in recent years Kroger has been the lone option since onetime competitor Winn-Dixie filed for bankruptcy in late 2004 and sold its 16 stores to Buehler Foods Inc., a family-owned grocery store chain based in Jasper, Ind. Unfortunately, Buehler’s Fresh Markets never got off the ground. According to the Indiana Economic Digest, fights with Winn-Dixie over delays and pressure from creditors forced the Buehler family to file for bankruptcy in mid-2005.

That leaves only two Kroger stores — one at 35th & Bank streets and the other at 28th & Broadway — for West Louisville’s 64,741 inhabitants. It makes one wonder why Kroger or other major grocers such as Meijer have not leapt at the chance to build more stores in such an underserved community.

Victory Park Farmers Market: Scene from the Victory Park Farmers Market, where Urban Fresh sells fresh fruit, veggies and meat.
Victory Park Farmers Market: Scene from the Victory Park Farmers Market, where Urban Fresh sells fresh fruit, veggies and meat.
For Kroger, the expense of building additional stores cannot be taken lightly. On average, Kroger’s prototypical store requires 59,000 square feet and an investment of $9.5 million, including the real estate. Tim McGurk, manager of customer relations for Kroger’s mid-South division, said the company looks forward to more discussions with city leaders and residents about future store locations. That is not to say, however, that the company is currently considering a new store.

But that idea is certainly on the plate of food justice advocates who believe adding grocery stores is one facet of fixing West Louisville and East Downtown’s food security crisis. As a motto, Kroger boasts of its “long history of providing quality products to the entire community,” but the company’s reluctance to build additional West Louisville stores is largely based on maintaining profits at existing ones.

“If we placed another store in the West End,” McGurk said in a recent interview, “it would likely have a negative impact on the existing Kroger stores in the area by taking customers away from them.”

Another thing worth noting is that Kroger may not necessarily view West Louisville as an underserved community. McGurk told LEO that of Kroger’s 29 operational stores in Louisville, seven serve West Louisville residents. Besides the 28th & Broadway and 35th & Bank stores, which are clearly within West Louisville’s boundaries — west of 9th street and north of Algonquin Parkway — most West Louisville residents would scratch their heads if someone told them their community has five more undiscovered grocery stores.

That is to say, Kroger has a radically different view of where the West End ends and begins. The five others stores McGurk listed include one across the street from Cardinal Stadium and another near Louisville International Airport. But most surprising, when Kroger thinks of serving West Louisville, it includes a store in New Albany, Ind., a place that no one has ever thought of as a West Louisville neighborhood.

Ira Rogers brought her mother: one recent morning to the Victory Park Farmers Market. “I haven’t seen beets like this I was a child,” said Rogers, who grew up on a farm.
Ira Rogers brought her mother: one recent morning to the Victory Park Farmers Market. “I haven’t seen beets like this I was a child,” said Rogers, who grew up on a farm.
“Those other places are outside of West Louisville,” said CFA organizer Bill Huston, who works in the organization’s Louisville office. “Their view is much broader. I don’t know what they base that on.”
Maybe Kroger defines “serving” by a store’s proximity to a neighborhood, but that reveals another hurdle for food desert neighborhoods. Overall, 28.3 percent of West End households have no private transportation. Even among the more affluent West End areas, such as the Chickasaw neighborhood, 17 percent of households lack access to a vehicle. The numbers are worse in East Downtown neighborhoods, where 50.9 percent have no automobile. Compared with the rest of Louisville Metro, that is still relatively high — most areas are below 5 percent without personal transportation. Therefore, serving the West End in Shively or New Albany, Ind., where short miles mean long hours on the bus, can mean tedious and impractical trips to the grocery.

With less personal transportation, fewer supermarkets, no superstores or natural food stores and only a handful of farmers markets with a limited supply that operate weekly at best, the food that is available for residents in Louisville’s urban core is usually of the unhealthy fast-food variety. The 2.8-mile stretch of West Broadway from Shawnee Park to Baxter Avenue features 24 fast food restaurants — that’s one for every tenth of a mile — an easy walking distance for a community where one-third of residents don’t own a car. Global fast food giants from McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s to lesser-known chicken joints all enjoy dense proximity on West Broadway.

Surprisingly, food security advocates are reticent about the monopoly Yum! Brands Inc. — the mothership of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell that is headquartered here — has in Louisville. In many ways, Yum! is to food security what Humana is to universal healthcare. But those working to bolster food security here say their focus is not on potential opposition to a corporate bogeyman. Rather, they seek myriad solutions, including a community kitchen, financial incentives for corner store owners, funding for training and technical assistance to neighborhood-based entrepreneurs who serve healthier foods, and examining land regulations that control the kinds of businesses located in a community.

Victory Park seems like the last place to find momentum for Louisville’s food justice movement. Namesake of the murderous Victory Park Crips, where the graffiti is still plainly visible, the area was once again marked with death in October, after the murder of 17-year-old Darryl Head. Food is the last thing on some minds.

It is here, however, where three twenty-somethings spend every Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. reshaping Victory Park. This is where Urban Fresh sells fresh fruits, vegetables and meat products at the Victory Park Farmers Market. Founded by youth activist Sayeed Asante, 24, and supported by CFA and the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace & Justice, Urban Fresh has quickly become the most energetic wing of the food justice movement in Louisville.

“It’s a beautiful thing being out here,” says Taleia Cooley, one of Urban Fresh’s three partners, who spoke with LEO while calculating prices, weighing vegetables and welcoming residents behind a table of fresh foods on a warm July afternoon. Owned and operated by Asante, Cooley and Darryl Barns, Urban Fresh’s food is supplied mainly by Grasshopper Food Distribution, LLC, which is the very first farmer-owned food distribution business in Kentucky.

“You hear how rough Victory Park is,” said Ira Rogers, who drove her mother to shop at the Victory Park Farmers Market. Rogers beamed at the sight of mostly seniors and families lining up around Cooley’s table. “It’s so peaceful. I haven’t seen beets like this since I was a child,” said Rogers, who grew up on a farm. “Not in years.”

Hoping to expand into other neighborhoods, Urban Fresh has caught the attention of veteran food justice organizers eager to involve young people.
“We want to inspire young people. We want to educate them and show them we have other eating options,” said Cooley.

Metro government also took notice and awarded the group a $4,500 grant for next year.
If Urban Fresh is unique, it is because its brand of food justice mixes a youthful entrepreneurial spirit with food security’s most pressing issue, which affects the whole of the city, not just its poor neighborhoods. Whether you live Indian Hills or Park Hill, food justice advocates stress that all residents of major metropolitan cities in America are far too dependent on distant food sources. Beyond the noble but limited virtues of farmers markets or the goal of building more supermarkets, all of Louisville is insecure because of our deep dependency on non-local sources.

After the big tobacco settlements in 1998, Kentucky was one of a few states that supported the diversification of agricultural crops. Passed in 2000, House Bill 611 provides bluegrass farmers with half of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which is $1.7 billion, distributed over 20 years.

Food justice advocates believe HB 611 is the proverbial seed to grow what will truly solve Louisville’s food security problems. Transitioning from a tobacco economy to a food economy, advocates have a vision of a cooperative partnership between urban communities that are food insecure and rural communities that desperately seek a new market to save Kentucky’s declining agricultural system.

That could begin with city policymakers. After reviewing recommendations in a new community food assessment report, “Bridging the Divide: Growing Self-Sufficiency in our Food Supply” — published in early July with support from Metro United Way, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and the Ford Foundation — the effort is to mobilize residents to compel Metro government to dedicate its full resources to wholly solving food insecurity.
“We are lobbying the Mayor, Metro Council and the appropriate policymakers to consider, improve, and act on our policy recommendations,” said Huston, the CFA organizer.

The report includes eight concise policy recommendations under what is called a Locally Integrated Food Economy plan. The proposal that may cause the biggest impact is an investment in a community-based food infrastructure, namely a community kitchen owned by local entrepreneurs. Something like that could be a boon to groups like Urban Fresh, which practically applies that model in Victory Park weekly.

Another important recommendation is the creation of a Farm-to-School program in Jefferson Country Public Schools, which could combat the skyrocketing dietary problems in young children, many of whom rely upon public school meals as their primary food source. Advocates believe if city leaders and agencies are serious about solving food insecurity in Louisville, they will take more aggressive steps toward these ends in the coming months.

Blending in with the residential homes on West Chestnut Street and housed in the historic Hampton House, the Center for Health Equity is Metro’s latest and primary government agency tackling food security. Spearheaded by Dr. Adewale Troutman, head of the Louisville Metro Health Department, the Center for Health Equity is an ambitious agency that was created to connect grassroots organizations with residents and policymakers. With a staff not much larger than Urban Fresh, the center has already established a food security task force with several community partners that focuses on policy development.

“We think the best approach is at a grassroots level, where we work with residents for policy changes,” Troutman said.

If you’re wondering where Metro government stands in the food justice movement, know this: It has undoubtedly been active on health issues, if from a somewhat cynical approach focused on bolstering Louisville’s emergence in the region and its image as the progressive blue city in a red state. Since arriving in 2004, Troutman has been the loudest public voice for a healthier Louisville. The immensely popular Troutman told LEO he is fully committed to connecting all of the dots of food justice. There’s no reason to doubt him — his commitment seems clear and beyond reproach — and thus far Metro has taken steps to prioritize healthier eating institutionally. Besides the Mayor’s Healthy Hometown and Active Louisville, in 2006, more than $1 million was invested in a food summer program — Louisville Metro Senior Nutrition Program — that served 340,000 meals to seniors.

Other health-based programs exist, but collectively it is little more than a good show. Once city agencies and elected officials have digested the community food assessment and policy recommendations, the question of what food justice policy the city is prepared to apply will be the real litmus test.

Today, food security sits in the dustbin of public dialogue, arguably where the ongoing muscularity of levees and bridges sat before national calamities forced our attention there. Meanwhile, lest major and unlikely restructuring occurs, some public moment in the future beholds a tragedy of our food system. Locally, we are moving in the direction of solving the daily dosage of unhealthy, expensive and unavailable food, albeit in baby steps. Food security is an issue we cannot afford to overlook; each meal is a continuation of the crisis.
On the strength of profound grassroots efforts, Kentucky’s metropolitan flagship is on the cusp of opportunity. Here, we will either leap ahead of the food security crisis or keep eating ourselves to death.

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