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Local Food
Credit: City of St Charles IL

Local Food, Local Poverty

A few blocks away from my house, there’s a weekly farmer’s market.  It’s lively and festive, with local agriculture, gluten-free baked goods, and live music and art.  It’s a wonderful set-up, aimed at making local food more accessible to those who live downtown.  This farmer’s market succeeds in every way but one: economic accessibility.  Local food is priced prohibitively for those living in poverty, particularly those who serve and produce it; almost 86% of food service workers in the United States earn wages at or below the poverty level.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards producing and consuming local food, spurred by the fact that most food within the US travels 1,500 miles between the farm and the consumer.  The data on the benefits of local food is hard to dispute.  The fewer miles the food is transported, the fewer greenhouse gases are emitted, the fewer preservatives are used on the food, and the more likely you are to be supporting a family farm.  Perhaps the biggest advantage of buying local agriculture is that “you can actually know your farmer and know what they’re doing” in relation to farmworker’s rights, pesticide usage, and general sustainability.

The case for local food makes itself, but local food tends to be more expensive than it’s non-organic, non-local counterparts.  In the most extreme cases, organic food can cost up to 50% more than non-organic food.  Those with economic privilege can justify spending a few more dollars a week to ensure that their food is local and organic, but when every dollar matters, it’s much more difficult to justify that extra cost.  There are several barriers to buying local food while living in poverty, including government food assistance programs, food preparation, and geographic accessibility to local food.

About 18% of Americans have participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at some point in their lives, and the Women, Infants and Children nutritional program serves 53% of all infants born in the United States.  Government food assistance programs are a major source of food for those living at or below poverty level, and yet most states do not allow those on food assistance to use their benefits to buy directly from farmers.  Most recently, only 22 states and territories allow local farmers to accept WIC vouchers.  If every state government were to allow direct payment to farmers, it would expand access and availability to local produce.

Another barrier to buying local food is the practicality of food preparation.  Often, those in poverty do not have the time, equipment, or energy needed to prepare meals from scratch.  It is time-intensive to prepare a full meal from scratch, and someone working multiple jobs or someone with a disability may not be able to prepare local food.

Finally, it is difficult to access local food when living in an urban area.  I am able to have a farmer’s market blocks away from my house because I live in a small town with many family farms in the area.  For those living in poverty in a place such as New York City, it may be almost impossible to find local food at all, let alone local food that is covered under federal nutrition assistance programs.  About 2.3 million people live more than a mile away with a supermarket and do not own a car.  These “food deserts” leave people reliant on fast food or gas stations for their nutritional needs.

Local food can become more accessible for all, but it will take action. What are your ideas on how to spur change?  Comment below!

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