Julia Montag: Is Ann Arbor going hungry?

Friday, May 11, 2018 - 9:13am

“I’ll have a second helping of that wonderful fish you got there, Miss Julia.” A man who claims to be named William Shakespeare addresses me with familiarity. He’s a regular at Food Gatherers on West Huron Street, as are many locals who volunteer their time and serve dinner to those who can’t find it elsewhere. “You know I’m from the Caribbean. This meal tastes like home to me.”

As I scoop a little extra fish onto the plate of rice and beans I’ve already made for William, I think about how this meal not only carries him back to his roots in Jamaica but also nourishes him and relieves some of the pressure that homelessness places on his shoulders.

Homeless and poverty-stricken individuals face food insecurity, or simply put, the lack of access to food. In an interview, Rackham student Vivienne Hazzard, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in public health, explains, “food insecurity is linked to lower diet quality,” and is associated with “a variety of adverse health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer." This link may not seem novel; most of us have seen or heard about “Super Size Me”, the documentary about a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month and ends up with all sorts of poor health conditions. What may seem surprising, however, is the sheer volume of food-insecure adults, seniors and children that walk through Food Gatherers’ doors, most of whom need a meal on a daily basis. Each dinner, Food Gatherers goes through countless vats of mashed potatoes or multiple sheets of peanut butter cake. Last week, we exhausted a 5-gallon container of strawberries halfway through dinner.“Food insecurity is much more prevalent than we usually think,” Cindy Leung, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences, said in an interview with me. Leung researches dietary and health disparities among certain populations that are more vulnerable than others. She explains even those above the poverty line may have a hard time accessing a sufficient amount of food, thus exposing more Americans to hunger than to poverty.

“Food insecurity can be as simple as worrying about your food running out before you have money to buy more or not being able to eat a balanced meal, and as severe as not eating for a whole day because you don't have money for food,” Leung said.

Our campus lies within Washtenaw County, an area with food insecurity rates at 13.6 percent, higher than the national average at 12.3 percent. About 48,750 individuals, or 13.6 percent of our county, report facing food insecurity. They make up the William Shakespeares, the faces to the stomachs that are fed regularly on West Huron. Emergency food programs like Food Gatherers regularly see many of these people. In a 2009 report, 85 percent of those served at Food Gatherers have monthly incomes less than $500, 35 percent say a food kitchen is their only or primary source of food, and only 13 percent eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. What’s preventing them from eating more smoothies and fresh veggies, you ask? About three quarters of recipients say the main obstacle is high costs.

Leung has started challenging the assumption that food insecurity only affects adults by studying the effects of poor access to food in college students. In 2015, a doctoral student in her department found that 41.5 percent of University of Michigan students experienced food insecurity at some point that year. “The administration is starting to work on strategies to address this, but it will take a long time to understand all the factors that contribute to student food insecurity and how universities should best address food security and other basic needs security among students.”

This research is essential because good nutrition is also extremely important in fighting diseases. Millions of studies have been published nationwide that show the negative effects of a poor diet on health. Foods with high fat and sugar content are often cheaper than nutritious proteins, fruits and vegetables, forcing too much of our population to resort to something unhealthier, like that mysterious fast-food chicken. Because Washtenaw has the highest cost of living in the state, we can see how an inexpensive, low-quality diet is often the only option.

How do we put an end to this cycle? Leung says, “Food Gatherers and other anti-hunger programs are vital in helping to alleviate food insecurity in vulnerable populations, but unfortunately, they are not the be-all and end-all solution.” She explains that we need to tackle the roots of food insecurity. Emergency food programs are used at consistently high rates because food insecurity continues to persist. In Washtenaw, almost half of community kitchen users reported being “worse off” than they were only a year ago. On the bright side, with the knowledge that food insecurity is related to lower diet quality, programs are taking steps in the right direction by adopting nutrition standards for foods they distribute. Food insecurity isn't just a hunger issue; it's a nutrition issue. Food banks should play a role in distributing foods of high quality, not just high quantity.

Can Food Gatherers meet the increased demand for their services? Even with the 6.5 million pounds of food served in 2017, Food Gatherers President Eileen Spring is worried many more locals may soon struggle to find their next meal. This is because of the imminent U.S. House of Representative vote on the Farm Bill; if passed, it would involve huge cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. You might know SNAP by its benefits, which were formerly called food stamps. This hunger safety net is the largest of its kind in the United States and offers food assistance to nearly 42 million low-income individuals. The Michigan branch of SNAP works with neighborhood organizations to ensure its nutritional-assistance benefits reach all who are eligible. If we want our community to improve and reach its potential, we must do all we can to ensure the Farm Bill is not passed. We can take action by urging our U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell to vote “no” on the bill and oppose SNAP cuts. Spring encourages her volunteers to focus on this issue, as Washtenaw County’s well-being depends on it.