By Guest Columnist, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND -- Envision a Cleveland where people, no matter their social standing, have fair access to fresh, healthy, affordable food within a five-minute walk. Envision a Cleveland where people with limited means have freedom and dignity over their food choices.
On Nov. 2, Clevelanders overwhelmingly voted for change. To those of us working in the food justice space, change can’t come soon enough.
Hunger in Cleveland is a smoldering public health crisis driven by lack of nutrition security and food sovereignty. Case Western Reserve University researchers’ analysis of Greater Cleveland Food Bank data revealed that one out of two Clevelanders used food pantries in 2019. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, that number jumped to 70%.
As striking as those numbers are, they do not convey the spiraling effect of nutrition inequities on health outcomes, especially among communities of color. Other research from CWRU found that recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits consistently fail to consume key nutrients needed to forestall chronic disease and support immune system functioning.
Cleveland currently has a safety net of food assistance providers designed to respond by helping families meet basic food needs in a time of crisis.
But this is not a long-term solution for endemic food insecurity. What we really need is a food system rooted in food sovereignty: access, choice, affordability. “Cleveland can’t wait” because our food problems are urgent.
To meet that urgency, a 21st-century model to advance food justice and nutrition equity is overdue. During the height of the pandemic, the ages-old practice of substituting emergency food programs for thoughtful, sustainable food policy was exposed as being dangerously naive. Fair access to affordable, fresh food is fundamental to thriving neighborhoods.
As the new city administration begins its transition phase, it must be intentional about building the needed infrastructure to combat hunger and support food systems change by committing to:
o Create a cabinet-level Food and Environmental Justice Czarina who will ensure that the issue of food access and sovereignty has a seat at the table.
- Center food justice across city departments, including Public Health, Community Development, Economic Development, City Planning and Finance.
- Generate an end-user-friendly interactive map of the emergency food safety net in Cleveland, including components that are both traditional (e.g., food pantries, hot meal locations) and nontraditional (e.g., community gardens, food-sharing networks, community food co-ops). Include days and hours of operation, variety of foods available, methods to reduce food waste, and linkages to other resources, such as job training or health services.
- Prioritize the environmental, social, and economic benefits in making Land Bank policy decisions. That includes removing barriers to land acquisition for agricultural purposes, and incentivizing opportunities for communities to hold land and have self-determination in growing a hyperlocal, culturally relevant food system with the environmental and agriculture workforce to maintain it.
- Build capacity for community resilience through financial support to individuals and community groups who are currently doing the boots-on-the-ground food justice work.
- Support implementation of data-driven policy proposals by engaging food systems researchers in policy conversations.
The food systems challenges facing the city of Cleveland were here long before the COVID crisis and cannot be resolved with any one solution. There have been moments of progress derailed by years of challenge and policy neglect. Our sleeves are rolled up, and we are ready to serve as a resource to implement the changes called for above. Like the incoming administration, we know that “Cleveland can’t wait” for food justice.
Michelle B. Jackson is a grassroots community organizer and a community researcher at the Swetland Center for Environmental Health at Case Western Reserve University. Gwendolyn Garth is an artivist and a founding member of the Central-Kinsman Neighborhood Up Network.