From Farm to Fork: Food breakthroughs and food breakdowns

Opinion by Jenny Rempel
April 24, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

From Farm to Fork: Food breakthroughs and food breakdownsThe term “food desert” has gained popularity in recent years as a way of describing low-income rural or urban neighborhoods that lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

However, two recent studies have attacked the concept of a food desert. Research by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that poor urban neighborhoods have twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile than do their more affluent counterparts, and a study by the RAND Corporation found no relationship between childhood obesity and the type of food outlets within a mile and a half of a child’s home. These are important findings, but both studies missed the point. Food deserts are explicitly defined as areas with low access to supermarkets or grocery stores, not simply low-income urban neighborhoods.

Our focus on debating the existence of inequalities in access has helped us continue to ignore the underlying health and hunger problems. Vast inequalities exist with regards to food access. As activist Nikki Henderson suggests, the widening income-inequality gap has helped keep some individuals in a state of perpetual food breakthrough, while others are locked into perpetual breakdown. Without exposure to the opposite state, it’s hard to conceptualize how deeply rooted these problems are in society.

Having grown up in Fresno County, I was given a pretty good understanding of the breakthroughs. My family had local, fresh, organically grown produce delivered weekly from a friend’s farm, and bike rides to the neighborhood farmers’ market were a Saturday morning routine. (Don’t worry, life wasn’t always this idyllically romantic. I still had my chance to try Lunchables, Taco Bell and canned pineapples when Dad was in the kitchen.)

With $5.9 billion in total gross production value from nuts, poultry, raisin grapes, milk and over 350 other commodities, Fresno is the most agriculturally valuable county in the state and one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the world. Sadly, the county also has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state.

Almost 200,000 individuals are classified as “food insecure” in Fresno County, which means they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the USDA. More than half of those individuals are children, making the childhood food insecurity rate a frightening 35.4 percent of the population under age 18. Many of the food insecure households are composed of farmworkers who grow our food but lack a living wage to feed their own families. That Fresno County can simultaneously produce the largest agricultural revenue in the state and sustain such high levels of food insecurity highlights the sharp divide between food breakthroughs and food breakdowns.

But you don’t need to venture into California’s interior to find food injustices. California has six counties with more than 100,000 food insecure children each, more than any other state in the union. There are 100,170 children living in food insecure households in our own Santa Clara County, meaning there is a 23.6 percent childhood food insecurity rate in the county once known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” for its abundant fruit orchards. A study by the Food Empowerment Project found that low-income neighborhoods in Santa Clara County had fewer supermarkets, lower access to produce, almost no access to organic produce and lower-quality fruits and vegetables than their high-income counterparts.

There are both local and broader actions individuals can take to raise awareness about hunger and reduce these glaring inequalities. The Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) is always seeking volunteers to assist with leftover food deliveries. Recognizing the value of leftover food from campus eateries and dining halls, SPOON activists collect leftovers and transport this food to the Palo Alto Opportunity Center. In recent years, they have redirected over 12,000 pounds of food that would otherwise have been wasted. Students and campus organizations can also volunteer to serve breakfast at the Opportunity Center. Though it may seem like an insignificant gesture, interacting with individuals who are in the midst of a food system breakdown can expose student activists to real food insecurity, reinvigorating broader efforts to address malnutrition in our society.

We produce enough food to feed Americans, but our system is stuck in a state of inequality. Access to affordable, culturally relevant, healthy, sustainable food should not be a pie-in-the-sky goal. It should be a basic right.


Need help understanding how breakthroughs can relate to breakdowns? Email Jenny at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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