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Food Reform: The Need for a More Inclusive System

Bread for the City has spent 43 years reducing the burden of poverty in Washington DC, by supporting its residents living with low income. George A. Jones has been serving as Bread’s CEO for 22 years now. In this interview he discusses the food system and the need for a change. He shares his vision of a more inclusive model and the main challenges and obstacles to getting there…

According to the United States Census, 18.6% of people in DC are living below the Federal Poverty Line. How is food insecurity linked with poverty?

The most basic connection is that if you don’t have enough money, you will have problems getting food. But it’s far more complex than that, specifically in a city like Washington, DC where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation. It’s difficult to live in here, and if you live on a low income, like many of BFC’s clients, it means that you have to stretch a modest income to pay for housing, healthcare, food, and other expenses. It is an impossible challenge. Inevitably, you have to sacrifice something, and quite often it is food for your families. This quickly becomes a cycle which keeps many DC residents food insecure. That’s why they turn to Bread for the City.

What are the imminent challenges facing food security and agriculture in the United States and in Washington, DC?

Some of them are technical challenges. The agriculture industry is being transformed by innovation. This means efficient, cost effective food production. But innovation is not responsive to the needs of people that have low incomes, and who live in food deserts. The challenge of capitalism is that opportunities make their way to those with the most resources: fresh foods and ones that aren’t processed are too expensive for our clients, and groceries stores are seldom operated in communities where people with low-incomes live. At Bread for the City, our job is to serve people in communities that aren’t favored in that way. We are the counterpart of this model.

It is so unjust to witness how that impacts people of color in such a disproportional way. The lack of dollars, the income disparity for this community, is getting worse. The trajectory isn’t looking much better, but it is a call to action for many of us in the nonprofit sector. As a service provider, we have to think how to reform our own programs to be more responsive to this adverse path.

What are the opportunities to eradicate food insecurity?

We need to actively create change with policymakers. We have to learn how to be prepared to meet the challenges, and battle the trends. We must figure out how public policy can elevate the social field and create some level of equity, even if the capitalist model drives us towards the total opposite. Policymakers have to work together with nonprofits, and we need to consider incentives to address for-profit concerns, such as putting grocery stores in low-income communities, staffed by residents of those communities who are paid living wages. In terms of programs, including food stamps or government assistance programs, they can expand the quantity of resources they manage, like increasing the number of food stamps that people get.

How has Bread for the City evolved to address these problems?

I have been at Bread for the City for 22 years now, and we have reformed our programs and shifted from being a service delivery organization to becoming a community partner, working collaboratively with those we serve. We have created spaces like our rooftop gardens in both centers, as well as an orchard in Beltsville, MD, not only for produce that we can put in the bags of families, but most importantly, to establish these sorts of hubs where we can engage community members to help us grow, harvest, and distribute the food that they themselves are producing.

We also have changed our process for food distribution to a choice model. In the past, we would pre-packed the bags of groceries and provide them to families, but in the last decade, we learned that it made more sense for our clients and for us to allow people to select what they wanted. We also found that by working with our clients to select the food that best fit their needs resulted in a reduction of waste, an increase in satisfaction, and a better sense of what we needed to purchase each week. It was a good business judgment to reform the system and introduce a choice model, but ultimately, it was a decision about equality.

At the same time, many of the people that are looking for food and come to Bread for the City are people of color, so we are starting to talk to our founders and policymakers about racial disparity, and we all need to be more vocal and active about that.It’s that intentional transformation that we want to be a part of; food justice and racial justice do not exist independent of each other. In many ways, they are one and the same.

Tell us about Bread for the City’s Food Program and its impact

We serve thousands of people every month, providing families and individuals with a five-day supply of healthy groceries, which help close the gap between when SNAP benefits end and the new month begins. We recognize that benefits such as SNAP do not always cover the need, and we want to ensure our clients aren’t foregoing other needs, such as medication or school supplies, to keep food on their tables. Additionally, we help people apply for SNAP, as well as help with other needs, such as medical care, legal assistance, and social services.

By the way…

The last favorite book you read: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Favorite quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

Inspiration: Martin Luther King Jr.

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