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The Hunger

Mark Winne wants to help cities close the food gap

Mark Winne

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 3/17/2010

Mark Winne has spent most of his life thinking about food--but not à la Top Chef or Gordon Ramsay, or even Michael Pollan. What absorbs Winne is the problem of "food insecurity," the state of living in hunger or uncertainty regarding where the next meal might come from. As executive director of the Hartford Food System, a Connecticut nonprofit, Winne spent 25 years attempting to make healthy food available for the poor. He developed farms, farmer's markets, food banks, nutrition education programs, and a neighborhood supermarket, among other endeavors. He's advised local, state, and the federal government on food policy, and written essays for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and Orion magazine.

In 2008, Winne published his first book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press). It's a sprawling exploration of America's relationship with food, beginning with Winne's own childhood in the 1950s. As others have done, Winne describes the rise of industrial farming and the first stirrings of the environmental movement, which eventually gave birth to the current fixation on all things local and organic. But he also tells a lesser-known story, about the evolution of the inadequate food system that has developed for those who can't afford such luxuries: the food banks, the fast-food joints, the 15 federal food-assistance programs. Finally, Winne provides solutions, in the form of examples from communities that have managed to close the "food gap" ever so slightly.

City Paper caught up with Winne by phone prior to his coming to Baltimore to lead a discussion entitled "Closing the Food Gap: Food Policy as a Path to a Just and Sustainable Food System" March 17 from 12:30-1:30p.m., at the Baltimore Department of Planning, 417 East Fayette St., 8th floor. RSVP to ampalmer@jhsph.edu.

City Paper: After a lifetime of working on food systems, as you call them, why did you decide to write the book when you did?

Mark Winne: I really felt that it was important to share my experience, which was considerable. I was interested in seeing people try to make some progress in this whole field. Hunger, obesity, and food insecurity were becoming more prevalent and, at the same time, the whole interest in local and organic was skyrocketing. It created these two worlds in my mind.

CP: In your book, you write that in a lot of ways working with "food insecurity" is just simply treating the symptoms of poverty. Yet treating those symptoms is the focus of your whole book.

MW: Food insecurity at one level is very much about poverty, but the other food problems we have, such as obesity or [being] overweight, are a nutrition problem. It's a two-part strategy. We need an antipoverty initiative that is lifting people out of poverty. Instead, we tend to camouflage the whole problem with food banks and, frankly, the food stamp program. Not that we don't need those things to keep people from going hungry, but that's where we tend to put most of our emphasis. These are poverty-management strategies, not poverty-reduction strategies. And we also need to rebuild people's food competency. We've essentially abandoned food education in our public-school system, and we need to think about ways we can bring that back.

CP: In the book, you discuss community gardens, farmers' markets, CSAs [community supported agriculture], better public transportation, partial government funding of supermarkets, all as measures that might help to close what you call the food gap. Is any one of those elements more powerful than another?

MW: I really think they need to be taken as a bundle of strategies. A community garden is a lot easier to do than bringing a 40,000-square-foot supermarket to a neighborhood. But that supermarket will do a lot more for the neighborhood. It will help to revitalize the economic life of that community. So there's a relative scale of interventions from those that are kind of easy but don't have a big impact to those that are very hard but do have a big impact.

CP: One of the examples of positive policy you use is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, where the state provides a portion of the funds for new supermarkets in underserved areas. This is maybe an obvious question, but I'd like to hear your answer: Why do supermarkets need that enticement?

MW: The basic problem is that supermarkets abandoned inner-city areas and many rural areas because they didn't perceive that there was a market. If you asked them, that would be their reason, that they weren't going to make money. I think it's a lot more complicated than that. I think they were afraid of those neighborhoods and weren't willing to reinvest in some old stores and, in some cases, there was outright racism. Then, Pennsylvania said, "All right, what would it take to bring you back?" I've always been interested in what is the right mix of public and private funding. You don't want to put too much public money in, because the marketplace has to function at a certain point. I think that Pennsylvania got it right. The numbers so far seem to suggest the model is very effective.

CP: In the current economy, when money is so tight, how would you argue that a local government, such as Baltimore's, should shell out for, say, a new bus route that takes people to a good grocery store?

MW: All of these food projects do have an economic return. If our public transit connects people to stores that are in the city, say, as opposed to stores that are out in the suburbs, then you're encouraging people to stay in the city. We underestimate the size of the food economy. The numbers I've been using are $40 per person per week for food, at home. Take that times the population of the city of Baltimore, that's going to give you a multi-million dollar food economy. How can we harness that to bring about revitalization? If you're going to use public dollars to stimulate the economy, keep food in mind.

CP: You talk about the two systems, one being the organic and local food that's become popular among the upper and middle classes, and the other where people don't even have access to basic healthy food. Do you think there's a link between those two?

MW: If you look at the systems for feeding the poor compared to the one for feeding the rich, they're two very different systems. I don't think there's a connection, other than where the public puts their attention. "Oh, I can get all this great local and organic stuff so I kinda think the world is a really nice place and I kinda forget how the other half lives." I think that happens. The general public thinks we solve hunger by donating more food and money to the food bank.

CP: What is the most important step a local government can take to address food inequity?

MW: If you look at any community today in America, you see a number of things going on. You'll see farmers' markets, community gardens, food stores--good, bad, or indifferent--agencies distributing benefits in the form of WIC or school meals or food stamps. But no city or state in the country has a Department of Food, which I think is interesting given how big the food economy is. So I think a food council or food-system coalition is a good first step, since I think we can assume that most cities have this rough infrastructure in place. Then, we can understand better where the gaps are in our food system and how we can address our needs.

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