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College of Social Work

Episode 4: Food Insecurity

*The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not represent the College of Social Work or the University of South Carolina.* 

Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kirk Foster talks with four employees of FoodShare SC, a Columbia-based organization that ensures access to fresh produce for all communities. Discussions center around food insecurity, which is the unavailability of food and individuals ability to access it.   


Kirk Foster: The conversation you're about to enjoy took some turns I didn't expect. Of course, I understand the challenges around access to healthy and nutritious food, and we talk about this. But I was challenged to think about the way historic policies and practices such as redlining manifest today in ways that further entrench in marginalization. Now that's a lot of words. 

So, what do I mean? And what I mean by that is what we did in the past to keep down African Americans and segregate them into areas that struggled economically and didn't have easy access to good jobs. Today, this appears as concentrated poverty, massive health disparities and yes, limited access to fresh, nutritious foods. Now I'm painting with a broad brush, intentionally. But the facts are clear. People of color have less access to healthy food, good quality health care, and quality education do their white counterparts. 

We can argue then that food insecurity is not a contemporary phenomenon, but rather, it's the product of generations of oppressive policies. This has given me pause to think, so maybe I'll do an entire episode on linking past injustices and oppression to current injustices and oppression. But that's for another day. One quick note about this episode: I have four guests. One joining us via phone from a remote spot in Maine and we were thankful for that, but the audio may be a little wonky at times. And I hope this episode gets you thinking critically about America. Enjoy it. 

Kirk Foster: Hello and welcome to Fostering a Difference. Today we will talk about an issue that has impacted nearly 1 in 4 families in 2020 - food insecurity. You might think that food insecurity is an artifact of the COVID-19 pandemic; however according to data from the USDA, 13.7 million households experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. That's over 10% of American households. And for a country with high agricultural output, this should be shocking to us all. And what's even more troubling for me and should be for all of us, is that Black and Latinx families are even more likely to experience food insecurity than white families. 

This means that many children are not receiving the nutrition that they need for growth, development and learning. And today's guests are truly making a difference. They work for Food Share South Carolina to ensure access to fresh produce for all people in and around the communities of the state. Food Share's mission is, "Good, healthy food for all." Joining us today are Michelle Troup, director of culinary medicine (at FoodShare SC), who's joining us from a kayak somewhere in Maine. Omme-Salma Rahemtullah, who's the director of advocacy and policy (at FoodShare SC). Cindy Watson, social worker (at FoodShare SC) and Courtney Watson, community outreach coordinator (at FoodShare SC). 

Thank you all for joining us and we're looking forward to this conversation. I gave a little bit of insight a moment ago into the scale of this public health crisis, and I use crisis very intentionally because this is a crisis. But I would like for you all, if you can, to set the stage for our listeners to better understand not only what food insecurity is, but the scale and the scope of it. So, if you could talk a little bit about that for us, what is the impact here in South Carolina and across the country?

Michelle Troup: I'll just start by adding to what you were saying. And before we jump into the South Carolina specificities, to talk about a larger, national, almost international scale about what food insecurity looks like. And I think that it's important that you said that Black and brown families suffer from insecurity more than white families. So, what that indicates of course is that this is a systemic issue, right? That food insecurity is not separate from other forms of injustice. It's part of the history of this country, and how this country, if you think about it, was built on stolen land by stolen people. And what do we need for food – It’s land and labor. So, when we think of food insecurity, we can't disentangle it from that history of land and labor in this country, and how injustices, low wages, lack of access to land, and health disparities are very much intertwined with questions of race and lack of access and justice. When we talk about food insecurity, we really do boil it down to a perspective that looks like it's isolated, but we always need to remember that it's not. So, I guess that's what I would add- or not add, contextualize to this conversation when we do get deeper down into South Carolina into very specific issues. 

Kirk Foster: And thank you for that, I think it's certainly important for all of us to understand the systemic and historic nature of again, this public health crisis. Because a lot of us may think ‘Oh, well it's a problem of lack of income to afford nutritious food, fresh fruits and vegetables,’ which we know are important, and we know tend to be more expensive. Or it's not just a matter of ‘I can run to the local convenience store because it's more convenient that the local grocery store.’ So, I appreciate that context, and part of the way I see this, and part of the conversation that I would like us to have, is around the social justice piece, the equity piece. It's not just ensuring that folks have a box of fresh fruits and vegetables every week, it's much more than that. So, let's dive right into it. You opened the door to that conversation, so let's just jump right into it. Why is this more than just a box of fresh vegetables?

Michelle Troup: That's a great question. Michelle here, I think that when you talk about it being more than just a box of fresh fruits and vegetables, it goes to that point of social justice. One of the things I tell our medical learners when we're teaching about food insecurity is that food insecurity is the root cause for some of the poor health manifestations we see in the community and also a manifestation of root causes that we see in terms of income inequality, historic redlining, racial injustice, etc. And so, a box of fresh fruits and vegetables is an open door to a world of ingredients that can be used for meals that are nourishing and fueling, that can lead to greater health outcomes when there's that support network around it. And I know that others have much more to say about that from their different perspectives, but as far as their healthcare perspectives, that's why it's more than just a box of food. 

Courtney Watson: A large part of what I do is work with our rural communities to find folks that are already doing some sort of service to their community. So, a non-profit agency that wants to work with their community, we work with them to give them the tools to package a box of food. But often they're having to deal with a number of the other issues to make that effective. Because we know in Columbia that we have people in a generally dense location, that they're probably going to find a way to us, but when you go out to some of our rural communities, that's just not the same. In order to effectively create consistent food availability, they have to navigate their way through those other root causes that Michelle is referencing.

Those other underlying conditions that create food insecurity. And I think we're really comfortable with the idea that food insecurity is a person that we see on the side of the road asking for money because they haven't eaten in a few days. But the reality is that food insecurity is much bigger than that. It's the family that's spending every dollar to pay their last medical expense or to pay for the car that's getting them to work. And so, they're having to sacrifice food in some way, because it's a way that they're not being pressed to spend money on. When you have debtors calling or collectors calling for something you've gotta pay those first. You don't necessarily have to go buy groceries. 

And so, food insecurity is at its heartbeat, a lot more uncomfortable for us to think that it's our next-door neighbor that's making all the money that they need to make, but they're spending in areas they just don't have a choice around us. And so, when we look at the USDA definition of food insecurity it's not only the lack of availability at a grocery store, but it’s the lack of certainty of how you're going to purchase that next meal. That's the side that we're really trying to create a long-term solution. So that our families receiving SNAP benefits don't have to wonder how they're going to buy that next nutritious meal. They know they have a solution right around the corner from them. So, it's a lot of, what you're asking about, these big things, but that's what we see.

Kirk Foster: And so, I think to help the listeners, if you could repeat that USDA definition of food insecurity, just to reinforce it so we all know what we're talking about. Because it's not just ‘Oh I wasn't able to buy food this day, or a couple of days consecutively.’ It's much more than that. So, if you could just throw that back out for us.

Courtney Watson: Way to put me on the spot.

Kirk Foster: I am.

Courtney Watson: The true definition - I don't wanna try to say word for word - but I'm trying to say, in summary, it's the idea that you're lacking the appropriate availability for food. When you go to your closest food retailer and that your ability to pay for that next meal is insecure. Which is not to be confused with a food desert, where there is a lacking of appropriate food in a geographical range of which I'm not comfortable saying the exact terms. But I think that those terms get really intermixed, that we're talking about the food insecurity of an individual or a family, or a grouping of folks, in that they don't know where that next meal is coming. Whereas a food desert is a specific area, where we know that even if a family doesn't have food insecurity, they live in a food desert where there's just not available, appropriately, nutritionally balanced food. 

Kirk Foster: So, what is the scale of food insecurity in South Carolina?

Omme-Salma Rahemtullah: I think in a state like South Carolina that has a very long history of slavery and crop sharing and lack of access to growing food just to secure an income to be able to afford food is more stark down here in the South than I think that you would find in more urbanized regions. So that urban/rural divide and that long legacy of slavery. 

Kirk Foster: Can you draw that connection for the listener between these historic contextual realities and what I might say are some of the modern-day manifestations of that context? Again, you've talked a couple of times about the history of slavery, redlining, other sorts of historic economic barriers. So, can you draw that or pull that thread through those arguments for us, telling us why that matters today? Because a listener might say ‘Well, you know the federal government has SNAP’ or a lot of people may still think of those as food stamps, so we're addressing this. So why bring up the past?

Omme-Salma Rahemtullah: So, I'll just give a quick example that is very, very recent. The USDA just announced that they wanted to compensate Black farmers for land that was basically taken from under them. There's just like a history of Black farmers being marginalized from their land, and the Biden administration wanted to provide $4 billion, and it is going through debt relief for minority farmers, but there is such a resistance from banks. The banks will kind of lose the debt collection from those farmers, so it's just this wildly. I know that's not necessarily answering the question that you asked. But you can see that what that is is just kind of the power of the rich, the power of the banks to really keep Black farmers in poverty. So, if that's happening right now in 2021, imagine what that historically looked like.

Kirk Foster: We all know that nutrition is important. So, talk to us a little bit about the impacts of food insecurity in children, in adults. I can think about a number of things related to brain development and the like. But talk to us about why this is important because of the impact.

Michelle Troup: Food insecurity is correlated with a number of poor health outcomes for children and adults. And it really comes down to food insecurity leads to malnutrition. So, a lot of times we are confused when we see that obesity and diabetes, diseases that we would relate to over-nutritious, to too much food in your diet, if you will, related to food insecurity or the scarcity of it. It really comes down to what kind of food you have access to. 

Kirk Foster: So, we're nearing the end of our time, and I wanna circle back around to the impact question. And y'all have intimated in several different points in our conversation today that this is much more than, to say what I said earlier, much more than ensuring that people have a box of fresh fruits and vegetables. And again, this podcast is more than just informing folks about issues but inspiring and equipping listeners to make a difference. So, talk to us about ways we can move the needle on food insecurity.

Courtney Watson: I think the number one way that we can move the needle, so to speak is the fight for $15 and other types of movements that fight for living minimum wage. As I mentioned, this is a structural issue, and it needs a structural solution. So just thinking big picture in a state like South Carolina, we're still at $7.25. Can you imagine that that's what people live off of? And to further compound that, the state has a law that says that municipals and cities cannot raise the minimum wage, right?

So, this state is actively fighting against dignified living. On a more kind of macro food level, I would say definitely continuing programs such as Healthy Bucks, which is really important. It's a SNAP incentive program to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. So instead of being paternalistic and telling SNAP recipients what they can and cannot buy on their SNAP cards, this provides and incentive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. So, for example if you spend five dollars on fresh fruits and vegetables, you get an additional $10 to also spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, and it's a really important part of our program. So, initiatives like that are also really important and I'll just plug that there's a bill right now in our house to provide access for Black farmers, creating programs, access to land. So, programs like that are part of a reparations movement I think are also really important. So, there's lots of angles to it, I think.

Cindy Watson: I think some of us who are knowledge holders around the empathy and compassion of food insecurity, having continued conversations with our friends, family and neighbors about what it looks like to just hold less stigma of those who are receiving support for food. It should be seen as a fundamental basic right for folks, and it doesn't necessarily matter what the cost is to us.

Kirk Foster: Thanks for joining me today, and for those of you listening, thanks as well. Go out and make a difference. 

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