In this episode of Eat, Drink, Think, we’re digging into the important issue of hunger. Unfortunately, it’s more timely than ever. Last year saw an uptick in food insecurity in America because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And beyond food insecurity remains the need to focus on nourishment.
We have an interview with Ben Perkins, CEO of Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit working to increase access to healthy food for all, as well as with Leanne Brown, author of Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day.
Don’t miss the interview with Mark Winne, an author and senior advisor to the Food Policy Networks Project at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, whose work on issues related to hunger and nutrition spans an astonishing 50 years.
Joy Manning: I am Joy Manning, and this is Eat, Drink, Think, a podcast brought to you by Edible Communities, the James Beard Award-winning network of magazines published across the US and Canada. Together we celebrate all things local and sustainable in the food world.
In this episode, we’re digging into the important issue of hunger. Unfortunately, it’s more timely than ever. Last year saw the first uptick in food insecurity in America in several years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On today’s episode, I talk to author and activist, Mark Winne, whose work on hunger spans an astonishing five decades. For another perspective on the topic, we’ve got Leanne Brown. She literally wrote the book on how to eat well on a SNAP budget, but let’s start with my conversation with Ben Perkins.
Interview with Ben Perkins, CEO of Wholesome Wave
Joy Manning: Ben Perkins is CEO of Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit working to increase access to healthy food for all. Before joining Wholesome Wave, Ben held leadership roles with the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association. He’s also an ordained minister with a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School.
Welcome, Ben. Thank you so much for being here.
Ben Perkins: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Joy Manning: You have worked in public health for a very long time as I understand it, but I believe Wholesome Wave is the first organization you’ve led that has a specific food focus. Why did you want to make that shift?
Ben Perkins: Well actually, interestingly enough before I started with Wholesome Wave, I was with the American Heart Association. It was during my sixth year tenure at the Heart Association, that last year COVID hit.
At the Heart Association, food was always an issue, a focus, and when COVID hit, of course it became even more of a focus. I had also during that time been recruited to be on the board of a local nonprofit in the Boston area that also focused on food security. So during that time, I developed an interest in the issue of food and nutrition security.
This opportunity was presented to lead the organization, to lead Wholesome Wave, and one of the things that really appealed to me about Wholesome Wave was its focus on the role of policy impacting population health.
In my work in public health, I had done a lot of work in terms of individual and community level kinds of interventions but increasingly realized that if we’re truly going to impact the health of thousands and millions of folks, that we need to look at things like policy, and because Wholesome Wave, its origins were really in this idea of looking at policy and impacting policy for population health, I was really intrigued with the opportunity to lead an organization that had a deep understanding of how to move populations towards health.
Joy Manning: Yes, as you know, I wrote about Wholesome Wave Founder, Michel Nischan, for the Edible Communities Magazine and we talked a lot about those policies. Wholesome Wave was a pioneer in SNAP doubling programs in farmers markets and grocery stores. So obviously the two are very interconnected.
Another thing that Michel and I talked about was a shift that Wholesome Wave is making to focusing on food insecurity to more of nutrition insecurity. I wonder if you could give me your perspective on the difference between those two terms. How do you define food insecurity or security versus nutrition insecurity?
Ben Perkins: Yeah, that’s a great question. In many ways, it goes back to the very founding of the organization. Michel has said that it’s not just about getting people food, it’s about getting people the right food, and in our case, healthy produce, healthy fruits and vegetables.
So the idea here is that there is one way to think about food—there’s this notion of foods that are energy dense. So you get a lot of calories out of them and that’s important, having, meeting a daily requirement of calories to fuel the body is important.
It’s also important to have foods that are, what we call, nutrient dense. So foods that not only fill your stomach, but also give you the proper nutrients so that you operate at an optimal level. So foods that are energy dense may not necessarily be nutrient dense.
So we want to also make sure that we focus on foods and in our case again, healthy fruits and vegetables, that we know to be nutrient dense because that’s a key component of health. People can get enough calories and still theoretically be starving in the sense that their body isn’t getting the nutrients that it needs to function optimally.
Joy Manning: Yeah, I mean that’s where I really see an overlap between your work at the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association and this work, because it’s those nutrient dense foods that are associated with better health outcomes and prevention of diseases, like heart disease.
Ben Perkins: Correct, absolutely.
Joy Manning: You’ve said that your top priority at Wholesome Wave is ensuring poverty is not a barrier to choosing fruits and vegetables. I did mention the SNAP doubling program from Wholesome Wave. Now here in the middle of 2021, how is Wholesome Wave working towards the goal of removing those barriers to choosing fruits and vegetables?
Ben Perkins: So key to removing those barriers is really, it goes back to the beginning of our conversation, which is around looking at opportunities to impact policy.
So key to our work, we’re looking at ways to embed the concept of Produce Prescription Programs into both federal and state level policy, because again what we know is that if you can get something embedded in policy, in this case Medicare and Medicaid, you get scale in a way that if we’re just doing individual programs here and there, while certainly it’s great for the communities, it’s not scaled.
Therefore, if we’re talking about the health of the most vulnerable folks, and we’re talking about millions and millions of people who are nutrition insecure, a key part of that has to be the role of policy, while even as we continue having our programs in various communities throughout the country. Again, we realize that the gold standard, the holy grail is around federal and state policy.
Joy Manning: Now, you mentioned the Produce Prescription Program. Can you just briefly describe that program for listeners that might not be familiar with it?
Ben Perkins: So the Produce Prescription Program is essentially a lot like it sounds.
The idea is if I am someone who has a chronic disease like heart disease or diabetes or I’m obese, or I am trending towards having something like hypertension or diabetes, and my healthcare provider in having say, a routine screen. Maybe it’s a physical or whatever, does a screening to determine that I am either at-risk or I have a particular chronic condition. That provider can write a prescription for healthy produce, and then I take that prescription and depending on the type of program, the particular… the way you fulfill the prescription will vary.
That really depends on the community, who we’re working with, but the fulfillment can look something like a voucher that you take to a farmers market or you take to a supermarket, or it could be a gift card that you take to a supermarket, or it can be a debit card that you can take to a supermarket or a farmers market or things like that. It’s pre-loaded with a benefit, and I then redeem it for healthy fruits and vegetables.
What happens in a true Produce Prescription Program, because again, I have a healthcare provider who’s making that referral, is that that provider’s also monitoring my particular health metric. So for instance, body mass index or blood glucose, like A1C, which measures blood glucose over a roughly three month period, or my hypertension, my blood pressure, things like that. So looking at those metrics and following them over time as a way to show the impact of consuming healthy fruits and vegetables on those various health metrics.
Joy Manning: It seems so powerful when it comes to a condition like prediabetes, which affects such a large number of people. In typical medicine, nothing, or very little, is done to prevent the progression of the disease, but we know that dietary interventions like eating more vegetables can really prevent it from becoming full-blown diabetes. So to me it seems like a very ambitious and potentially impactful project.
Ben Perkins: Absolutely.
Joy Manning: You talked about Medicaid and Medicare, what do you think are the obstacles to achieving that, having it funded by Medicaid and Medicare at the federal level?
Ben Perkins: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge is that we need more data to make the case for the cost savings on the system. At the end of the day, being able to show an improvement in healthcare outcomes, a reduction in healthcare costs, and an improvement of patient experiences. Those are the three core elements of what we call the “value-based care model”.
So everything that we do, in terms of produce prescription, we want to collect data.
The classic data, but also as importantly are things like stories. So being able to have conversations with folks who’ve been in those programs who tell really powerful stories about the impact, not just on them but in fact often on their entire family, because what we know is that we are talking about vulnerable communities, the vulnerable folks.
We’re not simply talking about the individual or the identified patient or index patient, but they’re also part of a family system. So those kinds of stories are incredibly powerful, in terms of making the case. So the stories along with the data are key, in terms of advocating and furthering policy so that we achieve the ultimate goal again, of getting this embedded as a permanent part of some of the federal and state policy.
Joy Manning: Right, I think and hope you’ll find out that treating something like prediabetes with more fruits and vegetables is certainly a more cost effective approach than the drugs that become the standard of treatment after a person has diabetes.
Ben Perkins: Absolutely, yes.
Joy Manning: I was intrigued to see that you are an ordained minister. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your role as a minister informs your work in the world of nutrition security.
Ben Perkins: So the best way to answer that, I think for me a lot of what I say is that my spirituality is really all about this world, it’s very this worldly. I’m not too concerned with the afterlife, that will take care of itself.
So one of the key ways I feel that I can live out my spirituality and my faith is through the work in the here and now in the world to make it more just, to remove barriers, to access in this case, we’re talking about healthy fruits and vegetables, but of course I’ve been in public health for two decades and I’ve worked in HIV AIDs as well.
A big part of my work there was around increasing access to preventative resources, tools, condoms, post, pre-exposure prophylaxis, those sorts of things. But the idea is, how is the work that I am doing contributing to human flourishing? So I like to say I want to create, I want to be a part of creating a world where you have heaven on earth or the earth is so fabulous that there’s no need for heaven, and so that’s really my philosophy.
So I see this work around food and nutrition, improving nutrition security or access to nutritious food as one way to contribute to human flourishing, plain and simple.
Joy Manning: I think that’s so moving and such an interesting perspective to think about food and nutrition advocacy and social justice work as a spiritual practice.
Ben Perkins: Absolutely.
Joy Manning: I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time to come.
Ben Perkins: Yeah.
Joy Manning: Well, thank you very much for being on the podcast. It was such a pleasure to talk to you, Ben.
Ben Perkins: Thank you, it was a pleasure to be here.
Joy Manning: That was Ben Perkins, CEO of Wholesome Wave. You can learn more about all the work that Wholesome Wave is doing at WholesomeWave.org.
Interview with Leanne Brown, Author of Good and Cheap
Joy Manning: Leanne Brown’s cookbook, Good and Cheap, Eat Well on $4 a Day, began as her master’s thesis project in food studies at NYU. She wrote it to help people on a tight budget, especially SNAP recipients. She’s always offered the book for free as a PDF and it’s been downloaded more than 15 million times. You can buy a printed copy of it as well, and if you do, another copy will be given away to someone who needs it. Today, there are more than 500,000 copies in print. Wow, those are some numbers.
Leanne Brown: Hi, Joy, nice to be here.
Joy Manning: It’s been a few years since Good and Cheap was published, but it feels very relevant to me now especially due to the uptick in food insecurity around the pandemic last year. Is it still being downloaded regularly? Did you see more people downloading it in 2020?
Leanne Brown: Yes, I mean here’s the thing. It’s a little hard to tell ourselves a really helpful data-driven story in that way from those numbers…because of the nature of the internet, the way… because of free download, the more it gets out there the more it’s linked in different places, the more it just gets downloaded generally. So it has been going up steadily in this strange, magical way.
I don’t feel comfortable saying oh, it definitely went up more during the pandemic, but what I did experience anecdotally was a lot more people reaching out to me once again, hearing more from the media again. Just hearing more deliberately from people once again, as so many people were struggling.
I mean, I think the thing is, the relevance of it remains constant as we live in this world whereas a culture we… it’s an awful thing to say but it’s the truth, it’s that we have said it’s okay for a lot of people to be hungry and to not have their needs met.
Joy Manning: Yeah, it is a perennial issue.
Leanne Brown: It’s always an issue and it’s one that I know you and I and many people are always working on, always willing to fight on, and trying to shift, but it’s a perennial cultural blind spot thing that we accept. So it’s always there but obviously your point is of course well taken, that during the pandemic at the same time I think so many people were reorienting themselves, almost really having to go through the forced shift of how they felt about themselves in the kitchen and how they had to manage their food intake and the way that they feed their bodies.
Joy Manning: And their food budget.
Leanne Brown: Well, exactly, yes. So all of that is linked to budget and linked to so many behaviors that we experience.
So because of that, and it was so acute and so kind of intense and I think frankly for many people, whether it truly was survival or not, because in many cases yes, when we’re talking about budget, it’s survival in the truest sense, but also in this other maybe less acute, less physical sense, more in an emotional way, I think many people were feeling very, very worried and anxious about it and like, can I keep up with this? Do I know how to feed myself this way? How do I handle this with perhaps a home full of kids there all the time and they’re used to getting meals from different places? All those kinds of factors that can feel really overwhelming in the body even if they aren’t directly survival based.
Joy Manning: Yeah, as I’ve explored the topic of hunger for this season in Edible Communities magazines, our feature stories about hunger, I’ve definitely encountered two schools of thought of dealing with insecurity.
One of them is that people need more money basically, they need more money so they can buy more healthy fruits and vegetables.
There’s another thread, that’s people need more education in the kitchen. People need recipes and they need to learn how to cook. It seems like based on your work that you would fall, I mean I think it’s obvious that people need both, but you have done a lot in the education space.
Do you think that people… do you have an impression of the cooking skills in general in North America? I know you’re Canadian, you live here in the states. What is your take on people’s current culinary literacy, shall we say?
Leanne Brown: Well, so I guess if… I don’t, yeah, agree exactly in that binary. I totally think that everyone needs more money. I mean, and I truly think in terms of the quickest road to be helpful, I think more money is the choice. I would say that pretty unequivocally.
Whereas, and I think the reason that you see my working in this area around education and empowerment is because that’s where I have something to give, that’s what I can offer. I believe obviously that it very much goes hand in hand, but I would say I guess it’s not even just about education, it’s really about something deeper. That is a belief in yourself that you can do it, which is I think what in my experience talking with many, many people.
Cooking itself is pretty simple, it’s just physical, it’s a physical act, it’s something that you can watch a video, you can read a book, you can watch someone do it, there’s so many ways into learning it.
You can literally just… if you can make yourself a sandwich, if you can boil yourself some pasta, if you can open a can of beans and mix it with something, then you can cook. It really is that simple, you can have success, have a very low bar to success, and yet what I notice is that for many people, that just really isn’t… not only is that doesn’t feel like enough, it actually, it feels like something that they’re really lacking.
Leanne Brown: A lot of people who grow up maybe not so lucky to have a home life where there’s a lot of cooking and food preparation presented in a healthy manner. I don’t mean healthy in the sense of fruits and vegetables, but I just mean in the sense of, it’s present, it’s not something that has to be a really big deal or that’s emotionally fraught or heavy or bloated in any way, but it’s just a part of people’s lives. Many people do not have that, and I think that that’s the bigger thing, is really this belief that tortures genuine… and I know that sounds so overwrought but it really is true.
So many people, myself included, many times I noticed this within myself, that we can just really put so much pressure on creating meals in a particular way. I think when you have no background in it and suddenly you’re off in an adult role, whether it’s because you’re young and on your own for the first time or maybe you have children or a family or something has shifted and you’re suddenly feeling a need to take on more in the kitchen and don’t feel up for it. That can be extremely difficult, and I find that many people are overwhelmed and don’t necessarily have the resources to take it on, can often give up easily, or just be really, really hard on themselves and feeling like that… really, what I said at the beginning.
You’re making a sandwich, it’s okay, that is enough, it is enough. It is a starting point and you can go further or you can accept that as it is and accept yourself to be where that is. It depends on, how much do you enjoy it? How much time do you want to spend on it?
Leanne Brown: I have this one friend of mine and he absolutely hates cooking, and yet at the same time I know that something that’s so important to him is to have meals on the table for his kid and his partner every day. When I visit him, I notice him making food for me without my having to ask, just always making sure it’s available at these times. I happen to know that he had a childhood that was somewhat erratic and his family didn’t always provide meals on a regular basis. So it’s something to him that is love, it’s so important to have that stability, and it means something to him. So that is what drives him to create these meals, even though the actual act of it, he doesn’t enjoy it.
So it was so important, I remember when we first met, he talked to me all the time about how much he hated cooking and how much he resented it. It’s been interesting to watch him as we’ve had conversations over the years, I can see him being more comfortable with himself now. He makes these simple meals that are just a few ingredients but he does it regularly, he just gets it done. He still says he doesn’t enjoy it but he enjoys the act of love that’s behind it, and that’s where he gets his motivation from.
Leanne Brown: So sorry, this is a very long winded answer, but it’s like, I think that these… it’s like these are these really unexplored experiences that we have in the kitchen. I think that’s so much of what keeps us stuck or feeling, whether it’s budget based or it’s something that’s budget and something more or it’s something completely different, these sorts of things are what can make us feel so uncomfortable, so scared, so anxious, when we go into the kitchen. That’s what can then stop us also from learning and from getting better and feeling any sort of mastery, is if you always feel this hideous, furious tension in your body every time you cook or spend time in the kitchen. Yeah, of course you’re going to avoid that, right?
Joy Manning: If you have a very limited budget for food, you can’t afford to make something, have it turn out wrong, and then order a pizza. So the confidence is really key.
Leanne Brown: Exactly. That’s right, and so you have to develop this very flexible attitude, which is so hard, where you just have to go, okay, I am going to eat whatever we make. You know what? That’s okay. I think it can be hard if you’re shoveling food that you really don’t like into your face, not to blame yourself. I think even harder than that with that relationship with yourself sometimes can also be that relationship with other people. If you have children that take care… and if you’re going, oh gosh, I tried to make this thing and I did my best but it really isn’t good and I feel bad eating it, and my kids are complaining and of course they are, and so I feel like they’re ungrateful but also it isn’t good. All those feelings are so hard to manage and it’s like we need to develop these really robust sorts of emotional skills to just go, it’s okay to have a meal that actually isn’t very good so long as it’s edible, that’s okay. You still did your best and that is normal.
Joy Manning: You’ll have another chance in a few hours.
Leanne Brown: Exactly, you’re going to have a chance tomorrow and just don’t hold yourself, if you can let go of that and not tell ourselves a story, well that’s how I am, I always do that, I’m a bad cook, this is what I do. When we hold onto that then we of course can’t move forward. We’re also just making ourselves so miserable and just it hurts, that kind of experience. I think learning to work through that stuff is so, so important.
Joy Manning: I do think your book has lots of resources and recipes in it that can help a home cook build confidence. I still think about this, I think you called it stuff on toast or food on toast, it really makes it simple.
Leanne Brown: Yes, exactly.
Joy Manning: I was wondering, it’s been several years, do you still have a recipe that you like to cook out of the book a lot? What’s your favorite or what’s still with you?
Leanne Brown: Yes, I definitely do. I will say that for myself, I’ve never been one to exactly… I don’t usually make the exact same thing over again, except in broad strokes. So I make the Chana Masala in some version or another, I make stuff on toast all the time, whether it’s the exact ones from the book or if it’s some version. I am constantly inspired by and riffing-
Joy Manning: Well, that’s what the book teaches, I think that section in particular encourages you to take whatever it is that you have and make it into a wonderful meal or snack.
Leanne Brown: Yes, yes. I think that’s what… as I’m talking about all these emotional experiences, I think that’s such a beautiful medicine to all that anxiety and all that stuff, is just to have those moments where actually you can just have success at making something on your own that isn’t maybe as recipe focused, because I think if you can do that in simple ways, it’s so empowering. It’s really an experience, like a full body feeling experience, that oh, I can do this. So okay, this isn’t quite the magic or the exact formula that it feels like. So many people experience recipes as basically like a chemistry assignment from high school that they’re about ready to fail. It’s like, you know what? It’s really not like that, it’s actually much more like finger painting or something. But the results are first off, you’re not being graded, right?
Joy Manning: True, except maybe by your family.
Leanne Brown: By your family and then you can be like, well you guys need to… we’re all in this together so why do you get to grade me? That’s a discussion to be had, but also the stakes just aren’t that high. I think we just need to experience what that really feels like so we can start to trust it.
I think things like that, doing simple things on toast where it’s like yeah, I can make toast. Oh yeah, you know what? I have some zucchini, I can figure out how to add some garlic to that in a pan and make that something yummy. Then you have it and it’s actually pretty good. It usually defies your expectations in a good way. I think that could be just so, oh, it builds that self trust, right?
Joy Manning: True, and confidence.
Leanne Brown: Yes, yes.
Joy Manning: Yeah, now as part of the project that I’ve been working on, the article that we have in the fall issues of Edible Communities magazines and some other segments of this very podcast, I’ve been talking a lot about food insecurity versus nutrition insecurity and the importance of getting nutrient dense food to people.
So I thought that given your expertise on budget cooking, that you might have some inexpensive grocery staples from the produce section that you could mention as a good thing to buy and cook with if you’re on a very limited budget, whether it’s a SNAP budget or just a small budget.
Leanne Brown: Yeah, so I think obvious but certainly, seasonality is really important.
So right now we’re in the summer and so you can get a lot of things like zucchini—which I had just mentioned—zucchini is very inexpensive right now. Tomatoes are cheaper than they usually are, although I generally would go with canned tomatoes, even canned corn, even at this time of year, depending, can be cheaper and is really a wonderful product that you don’t have to worry about storage and is very, very high quality.
Yeah, I mean I think canned vegetables are pretty great a lot of the time, not all of them, but many of them are really great. Same with frozen vegetables, often they are already precut. Frozen cauliflower is often half the price of the fresh stuff, it’s already chopped for you, it’s ready to go, it’s very easy to use in a recipe. So I do find it’s, you’re like oh, I happen to actually be getting some more convenience for this and it’s a little less expensive as well, which is unusual.
Then yeah, I mean it’s so… it almost always sounds a little bit too simple but really yes, looking at the seasonal stuff that’s available like zucchini, which is so delicious and really, if you have garlic, if you have some onion, if you have even just a simple as salt and pepper and some… anything else that is a tiny bit of sausage. Zucchini takes on so much flavor from other stuff and even just salt will bring out its natural just lovely, lovely flavor. You can get a lot of it for very little and it’s just a wonderful vegetable I think, to really embrace at this time of year. I know it’s a funny classic we all… or not we all, I’m sure people who grew up in the Midwest or in Canada where I’m front, zucchini grows so, so plentifully in people’s gardens, it’s almost like a weed and if you have a friend with a garden, they’ll be like, “Oh my god, take my zucchinis off my hand,” at some point. It can feel like, oh gosh, I don’t want this much zucchini but it’s really, really lovely. It’s something to be embraced for that short period of the summer where it is so plentiful and really delicious.
Joy Manning: I understand you have a new book coming in January, 2022. This will be airing in the fall, so not that far off at this point. Can you tell us a little about it?
Leanne Brown: Sure, well I guess I’ve been telling you a little bit about it in the way that I’ve been answering my questions, because it’s so focused on… it’s called, Good Enough. It is a cookbook but it’s also full of a lot of personal essays and experiences of me personally and sharing the work that I’ve done, how to feel good while you’re cooking.
So what I keep really thinking about, it’s called “Good Enough” and it’s very much about thinking of course your food, whatever meal, this is good enough, but also thinking first of yourself as good enough, yourself as good enough to be able to create food that is good enough for you and to be able to orient yourself so that cooking can be the beautiful act of self care that I think it really is meant to be. That can be so, so healing and that you can have at any budget.
But there’s a reality that we have to work through. I think a lot of fears and anxieties, and I know I certainly have battled with anxiety and depression over the years and certainly over the last bunch of years and since I had my daughter. So I just tried to share that as honestly and openly as I could and share what I’ve learned in the hopes that people will be able to benefit from my experience and feel good about themselves. I mean really, all my recipes, I think all my recipes, it’s never been, I’m always so thrilled to hear that someone adapted or made changes to my recipes because their starting point.
I want everyone to make them their own and what matters to me is that you feel good, that you feel empowered, that you feel confident in your life, and that when you make food, you feel good while you’re doing it, and that it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Maybe if we’re icing a cake together, I want us just… maybe it’s lopsided and goofy looking at the end but we had a beautiful time and we felt good while we were doing it, and we celebrated that at the end. That’s how I want… that’s the book that I’m creating, is about really addressing how we feel while we make the recipes rather than the outcome.
Joy Manning: Well, I’m really excited to read it. I agree with everything you’ve said about cooking being healing and can’t wait until it is available and I get to take it to my kitchen.
Leanne Brown: Yay, I can’t wait to share it with you, Joy.
Joy Manning: Well, thanks for being with us.
Leanne Brown: Thank you.
Joy Manning: That was author, Leanne Brown. Learn more about her work at LeanneBrown.com.
Joy Manning: Mark Winne is a food activist who’s worked on issues related to hunger and nutrition for 50 years. He’s an author and a senior advisor to the Food Policy Networks Project at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future. His most recent book, Food Town, USA, explores seven often overlooked American cities that are now leading the food movement.
Thanks for being with us today, Mark.
Mark Winne: Thank you for having me.
Joy Manning: So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the distinction between food insecurity and nutrition insecurity. I wrote about that in my article for Edible Communities this season. I’m wondering, how do you feel about those terms? You have a long perspective on this topic, and it seems like the preferred terms maybe are changing? What do you think the difference is?
Mark Winne: Well, the terms are always in flux. The main difference that I see is first of all, we measure, officially measure food insecurity. It’s one of the things that the US Department of Agriculture does annually. So there’s really fairly precise measures around what constitutes food insecurity and security.
Nutrition security or insecurity is not used as commonly and generally would refer more to an individual’s or a household’s nutritional health, dietary health at any point.
When we think about food insecurity, we tend to think of, to have a bigger context, we think about the socioeconomic conditions of a community. We also think about issues around racial equity have entered the discussion more recently. So it tends to have a somewhat larger context, even more of a… in terms of its relationship to the food system and to a particular community.
But nevertheless, I think nutrition security is always something that we are paying attention to because ultimately what we’re always talking about is the dietary health, nutritional health of the individual.
Joy Manning: Right, I think the idea of nutrition insecurity is to talk about the quality of the calories that people need and not just the quantity of them.
Mark Winne: Absolutely right, I mean I think this is… when I think about nutrition security, my brain immediately goes to some of the questions we have of overweight, obesity, and diet related illnesses which are growing and I would say that those problems eclipse at this point those related to food insecurity.
Some people might disagree with me on that, but if you look at the numbers on the projections that have been made by public health officials, the growth in obesity and subsequently illnesses such as diabetes is really astounding and very scary. I mean, there are projections now that 60% of the people in certain states, particularly in the south, will be obese. The consequences of that for health, for quality of life, for our communities, is serious, very serious.
Joy Manning: Yeah, both important terms. In the introduction to Food Town, USA, you define the food movement as the people—and I’m quoting you here—”the people who are committed to healing the failures of the conventional food system with entirely new ways of producing and distributing food.” How does that intersect with hunger and food and nutrition insecurity in your view?
Mark Winne: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s been interesting, I have the advantage or a disadvantage, I’m not sure, of following the growth of various kinds of food activities over a pretty long career. There essentially were two very large movements.
One was to look at the quality of food, look at where it’s produced, look at the evolution of organic food and its importance and sustainable production and looking at the impact of food production on the environment, and people thinking about their own health and getting both food that’s healthy, local, sustainable. That was one very large stream, you might say, or river of the food movement.
In a somewhat parallel track was the concern about hunger, which really didn’t manifest itself until probably officially the 1990s, the mid 1990s. Then we began to see the growth in food banks, food banks having started up in the late 1970s, early 1980s, but becoming more and more prominent across the US as a response to higher levels of poverty, declines in the social welfare system in the US. Politically, the country turning against a lot of the programs, nutrition related programs like what was then food stamps and now is SNAP.
So we had this growth in hunger and awareness of hunger, at the same time we had a very strong awareness of where our food was coming from and how it was produced and what the consequences of that were for our individual health and environment.
Fortunately, those two movements came together, and now we are seeing people who both sides, paying attention to the quality of the food that they’re eating, where it’s produced, how it’s produced.
A movement that on the local side you might side, the local sustainable side which was pretty much all white, white, light and bright as I like to say, is now much more I think merged with a community that is… coming out of communities of color, communities of color who are just as concerned about the fact that they’re not eating very well, that they’re not eating higher on the food chain, so to speak, who are producing more of their own food.
So communities, this merging which might seem a little confusing to people, really did have the effect at a community level, at a very local level. People paying attention to farmers markets and paying attention to urban gardens, and farm to table restaurants, and just really a whole wonderful explosion of good and healthy food. But at the same time, they ask themselves the question—and they took responsibility for—the fact that a good portion of their community was not eating that well, that there was still high levels of food insecurity.
So I may sound, sometimes I perhaps sound a little Pollyanna-ish on this subject, but I have seen across the country in my work in communities, that there’s a real coming together of concerns about hunger and concerns about where our food is coming from and how it is produced.
Joy Manning: I think your book actually illustrates this really well with the case studies of the city, and I would definitely encourage anybody who wants to see that merging illuminated, to check it out. It really helped me connect those dots in a new way.
Another thing that you say in the book is that you define the success of a city in part by its ability to ensure everyone is well nourished.
Can you tell me how incidences of food insecurity affected whole communities, how it impacts people, even people who have plenty to eat and that’s not an issue in their own individual life?
Mark Winne: Well, I think you don’t have to look any further than say the growth of food banks and food pantries and emergency food sites. Keep in mind that… I tell people that are younger than me, that’s just about everybody, that food banks didn’t even come on the scene until the late 1970s.
We really didn’t have any, and today we have over 200 major food banks in this country, those are really large warehouse operations. Then we have 60,000 plus food pantries, smaller, local neighborhood, whatever. Running from those that are very professional, professionally staffed, to those that are very much a volunteer effort.
That’s really new stuff, I mean that has not been part of the American story for all that long. To me, that represents probably the greatest individual personal commitment that people have made and an expression of their concern that many people in their community just aren’t eating that well. There’s a lot of other reasons and lots of other stories behind it, but.
I saw it in another way, it manifests itself in other ways. Every community that I visited and probably just about any significant size community that I’ve been to or worked with over the last couple of decades, looks at their farmers market differently than they used to. For instance, farmers market being the wonderful place for everybody to shop, well, not everybody was shopping there because a lot of the times the prices were quite high. So we have this really, a significant growth in the number of incentive programs and coupon programs and double-up buck programs that have been designed to incentivize lower income people to shop at farmers markets, by making them much more affordable.
Joy Manning: Yeah, I wrote about the Wholesome Wave’s pioneering approach to those SNAP doubling programs at farmers market, it seems to have made a big difference.
Mark Winne: This has moved into federal policy, too. There’s tens of millions of dollars are made available by the US Department of Agriculture every year to communities to provide some different forms of incentives to people to shop. Not just at farmers markets, but also to buy fresh produce, in some cases at conventional retail food stores.
So it’s all these things and there’s many more examples of how communities are just paying attention to people in their community and making sure that… I use the term, “taking care of their own”, which is actually I stole that from Bruce Springsteen, but he hasn’t complained about it.
How do we take care of our own? Taking care of our own I think is a wonderful concept. You don’t do it on your own, it’s not just an idea, not just a charitable impulse. It’s also something that finds its way into public policy. I think it’s a good way to be thinking about our community, and food gives us a great way to enact our best impulses when it comes to that.
Joy Manning: My favorite example of that from Food Town, USA, was the Good Food Project that you wrote about from the Central Louisiana Food Bank. Can you describe how a program like that, that is essentially garden based, is an improvement or maybe it’s an evolution from the processed food that is so often a mainstay of food banks?
Mark Winne: Well that project is actually run by a food bank, it’s run by the Central… I think Central Louisiana Food Bank, I’m not sure I have the name right but-
Joy Manning: That’s what, the Central Louisiana Food Bank, yeah.
Mark Winne: Yeah, and there the idea came from the fact that the food bank was receiving all the same kinds of donated food that food banks tend to get.
Joy Manning: Not typically the best quality food, would you say?
Mark Winne: Not always the best quality food, and oftentimes food that’s harmful to people. So, but like many food banks, they’re caught in a quandary. Do they say no to the groups, to the companies that are donating food, or do they accept the bad with the good?
So in this case, they said, “Well, we just can’t turn the food back but what can we do to increase the amount of good food?” Hence, they got into gardening. In fact, at last count they had over 100 community garden sites and across I think it was a 12 or 13 county or perish area in central Louisiana. So they really took a very aggressive approach to developing gardens and school gardens and community gardens and larger demonstration gardens, and also providing training and support.
Sometimes gardens don’t work that well because the people who are involved with them just don’t know a lot about gardening. So in this case the food bank said, “Okay, we’re going to provide training, technical support, a lot of encouragement,” and that was a very proactive way for them to say, “All right, we want to get the best and healthiest food to people so we’re going to do everything we can to encourage you to grow your own, even though we’re still going to have to take a lot of the less healthy food that we have donated to our food bank.”
Joy Manning: If I recall correctly, you wrote about an educational component as well, where they were teaching kids about vegetables, in some cases, kids that couldn’t even really identify vegetables. I believe you wrote about-
Mark Winne: That’s right.
Joy Manning: … using flashcards so that they could… this is an eggplant, this is a zucchini.
Mark Winne: Yeah.
Joy Manning: I thought it was very inspiring.
Mark Winne: If you’re ever in Alexandria, Louisiana, which is where they are located, their headquarters, there’s this wonderful demonstration garden that was really just very kid-friendly, family-friendly, very educational. I think we’re seeing this kind of thing expanded across the country. There are tens of thousands of schools now, for instance, that have their own gardening program, sometimes as part of their farm to school efforts, to get more local food into their schools. So gardening and kids and education has been really a very vital and robust part of the food movement.
Joy Manning: Right. Another thing you talk about a lot in the book is the power of individual action. I find when I talk to people about the subject they feel a bit powerless and a little overwhelmed.
Do you have any advice for listeners who might be inspired to make a difference? How might they go about getting involved in their own cities and towns?
Mark Winne: Well, there’s no lack of opportunity in the food world and just about any community. I mean, usually an easy entry point would be a food pantry or a food bank because they’re always accepting volunteers. They really proved their mettle during COVID and volunteers were often threatened—in a sense of, they were at risk working in a food bank and being subject to the spread of COVID—but they showed up and they did their job. So that’s certainly a good opportunity.
Another place that I encourage people to get involved is with local food policy councils. This has been a growing part of the food movement, we have almost 300 in the United States now. They look at the whole food system, they look at all the parts out there and all the things we’ve been talking about and many more. So that’s a good place to get involved.
Mark Winne: It’s always good to be thinking beyond just the immediate project or the immediate activity itself, and try to help educate yourself. In other words, why do we have these conditions in this community or in this country? What are the underlying causes? What are some of the things I can be doing that would maybe eliminate the root causes of hunger? Maybe I should be looking at higher wages, higher quality of life and living standards for people, better educational systems. Sometimes these lead to people becoming more engaged politically as a solution to some of the underlying causes of hunger.
Joy Manning: Yeah, those are all great points. I’m definitely going to look in to see if my city has a food policy council, that sounds like a really actionable, interesting way to go about it.
Mark Winne: Yeah, I’ll encourage people. We have something called FoodPolicyNetworks.org, if you go to FoodPolicyNetworks.org, that’s the site at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, where I spend part of my time.
Joy Manning: Great, we’ll put that in the show notes.
Mark Winne: Good, it lists all the food policy councils in the United States.
Joy Manning: Wonderful, well thank you so much for joining us today, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you, I appreciate your time.
Mark Winne: Thanks so much, Joy.
Joy Manning: That was Mark Winne, he is the author of the book, Food Town, USA. You can learn more about Mark and his work at his website which is, www.MarkWinne.com. That’s M-A-R-K, W-I-N-N-E.
Thank you for joining us today on Eat, Drink, Think. If you like this episode, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to pick up your local Edible magazine.