Food Security for the Whole Community

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Tompkins Weekly 03/25/2013

By Jemila Sequeira

When I was asked to write an article for Tompkins Weekly, on the Whole Community Project (WCP), I immediately reflected on the countless activities that focused on food. I often hear people commenting that it is nearly impossible to stay current with all that is happening with food here in Tompkins County. Food is special to all everyone, regardless of income, education, belief, race or other identity. We carry special memories with food, we absolutely need food to live and on a very fundamental level, access to food is a human right.

The Whole Community Project was launched in 2006 to address childhood obesity in Tompkins County and has since broadened its scope to explore and address the underlying issues within the food system that are of concern to many local individuals and families.

In 2008, I joined Cornell Cooperative Extension as coordinator of the Whole Community Project. The project had demonstrated success and convened several working groups. Committed individuals met for almost two years to address childhood obesity through increasing the availability of healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

Several of today’s food programs, reaching youth and offering CSAs, gardening trainings and were planted during the early years of WCP. The project had become a key convener of committed stakeholders, working to improve opportunities for a healthier community.

Since 2008, there has been a great deal of change in the local food system. The interest in improving access to healthy foods for everyone has raised some pressing questions? Who exactly are the people most affected by chronic health conditions? Who are the people turning to emergency pantries to supplement their food needs? And more importantly, who are the people forming the answers to address these problems experienced by those who are food insecure?

The answers to these pressing questions have historically come from those who sit in positions of power and class privilege. It is rare to find people struggling with resources to eat healthy, involved in ways that create positive changes in the food system and in the lives of those less fortunate. The WCP encourages and supports improved access to resources and information, necessary for people to exercise the democratic right and influence and control policy changes that foster health and equity within the food system.

The project recently leveraged the funding of local funders and the USDA to build capacity for active participation in the food system, among those who are historically under-represented. Individuals and families living with limited resources are often engaged in sustainable living practices, yet usually are not at the table in conversations about sustainability.

Those most negatively impacted by health concerns also often those with little or no understanding of how our food system functions. Investing in the lives of people who have historically depended upon others to make food system decisions, set policy and control what we can eat has not supported a healthy sustainable community.

In 2012, the WCP received funding from the Park Foundation to organize food policy tours for people with little or no knowledge and understanding of food systems. The tours allowed people to meet people who like themselves who struggle to eat healthy. The experiences were inspiring and valuable, allowing for the development of networks and support.

Attendance at conferences in Detroit, Baltimore, Binghamton and Brooklyn has already led to creative organizing in Tompkins County. In April, the WCP will host community conversations throughout the county. These gatherings will provide an opportunity and space for people to learn about what is happening in Tompkins County. The WCP will also provide information to county residents on opportunities through Food Dignity for mini-grant funding to support promising efforts to improve our local food system, specifically for those with limited resources.

The WCP will also host monthly films throughout the county to raise awareness and encourage our neighbors to join together and re-imagine a sustainable food system where everyone is welcome, can make informed decisions regarding issues that impact the community.

Tompkins County residents have expressed concerns about food access, reflecting a growing concern for both the City of Ithaca and the surrounding area. The WCP and several groups have ventured to access our level of food security and other food system concerns; all findings indicate that we may fare better than larger metropolitan communities, however relative to our demographics; we have some real challenges to tackle.

It is the intent of the WCP to support community leaders who can lead the way to creating a sustainable and equitable food system.

It is easy to be discouraged when facing our daily concerns, but when we access the value of good health and well-being, we must find a way to make our future sustainable. The good news is that we are a very fortunate community with amazing people, who already want to work for a better future. The sustainability of our efforts will be reflected in our willingness to value tomorrow, challenge our fear and work together for equity and dignity in our local food system.

Climate change, rising costs of food, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and other barriers have impacted our country’s need to face food insecurity. In April 2011, the WCP became a partner in a five-year USDA AFRI grant, with four other programs throughout the country. The importance of a healthy and sustainable food system is undeniable and has become the impetus for new programs, innovative businesses and several grassroots initiatives. In Tompkins County, one can find people engaged in opportunities to exercise our interests in food through business, education, city and regional planning, policy and more.

WCP aims to be a place of dialogue and action for all the communities that make up Tompkins County. It will take our whole, diverse community to make a difference.

Jemila Sequeira is the coordinator of the Whole Community Project at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

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