Last time , I talked about my time in the Capital Region of New York State working on food justice and access. The biggest takeaway of my experience, which permeates my work with Nspiregreen, was the need to help people connect the dots. In this part, I’ll talk about the challenge of healthy eating and cooking. Many people that I encountered thought that healthy food was bland or tasted like dirt (looking at you, radishes!!), was expensive to buy, and complicated to make. The thing is, I don’t disagree, healthy food can be all of these things but it doesn’t have to be.
One of my favorite experiences was serving as the mobile produce market assistant coordinator for the Veggie Mobile. The market provides affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to areas where there are no grocery stores or resources to get fresh foods, a.k.a. food deserts. During my tenure, I happened to observe the buying habits of our customers as we visited the food deserts of NY State’s Capital Region.
The older generations would generally go for cooking vegetables like sweet potatoes, beets, collard greens, carrots, onions, potatoes, and turnips. I could talk with these patrons for hours about recipes and preparation methods for the produce we sold. The younger shoppers, however, would mostly go for fruit like apples, pears, grapes, bananas, etc., because they were ready to eat and sweet. Some young people they would tell us that they were picking up the cooking vegetables for their parents or grandparents to prepare and would ask for recommendations.
It became obvious that there were barriers, more than just providing the produce, that were keeping younger generations from learning about fruits and vegetables as well as their preparation. Maybe it was a lack of interest, education and cooking skills, or time in our faster-paced society, other obligations, barriers to accessing preparation equipment, or our American taste palettes trained on overly processed, fast foods. Whatever the reason, I did my best in creating the recipes for the “taste and take” for something that could be replicated with minimal investment with maximum deliciousness. But the Veggie Mobile is just in the Capital Region of NY, and while there are similar projects around the country, they only address these issues in a small area.
As a planner, we need to also think broad-scale, system wide. How can this be fixed? What can we do to reconnect people to cooking skills and healthy eating? The answer? Education, policy and programs, and planning. Here are some things planners and municipalities can do:
- Bring back Home Economics: Did you have a home economics class as a kid in middle school or high school? These courses are often first to get cut when school budgets are strained, but they can be designed to reinforce other subjects like mathematics (reducing or multiplying recipes), science (biology and botany if you have a school garden or physics with cooking), art (sewing and cooking presentation or plating), writing skills and reading comprehension (reading or creating recipes). But they also provide crucial life skills for generations to be self- sufficient. No calling mom to sew on a button for you! And to my two main points, home ec can teach the life cycle of plants from seed to vegetable to plate.
- Utilize Parks and Recreation Programming: Parks departments can hold educational classes or community mentors for gardening lessons, cooking classes, meal planning, and nutrition classes that help build resident capacity and knowledge base.
- Start them young: Teachers can hold cooking classes for younger children to get them used to eating fruits and vegetables. Field trips to farms can be educational ways of showing where foods come from, how they grow, and how they make it to our plates.
- Reach out to communities in food deserts. Let them know these classes and opportunities are happening. Don’t skimp on this part!
POLICY and PROGRAMS:
- Include food access and security into comprehensive planning!! Similar to land use and other evaluations, we can assess neighborhood access and food security and utilize the comprehensive planning process to get the ball rolling to address these issues.
- Zoning Codes can be used to enact policies that implement edible landscapes in parks, encourage grocery store development in food deserts, set aside vacant land for community gardens, etc.
- Community Garden programs can be sponsored by a municipal parks department. These programs can potentially (after soil tests and/or remediation techniques) use city-owned, vacant urban land used as pocket gardens for growing food.
- Healthy corner store initiatives and small business grants can be employed to enable corner stores to sell produce. Grants assist in buying refrigeration equipment and trainings for business owners
- School Districts can support local food systems by developing policies for partnering with local farms, which in turn support those local businesses and protect agricultural lands
- Partnering of markets with community healthcare centers to help with education and outreach to people facing diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. For example: the Veggie Mobile partnered with a local community health care center with sponsorship from a proactive insurance provider to subsidize a coupon program. The doctors would distribute weekly coupons to patients that they could use like cash on the veggie mobile. Farmers markets could set up a similar program in areas of high need.
Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users.