Food sovereignty and economic incentives key to creating food security

By Vinayak Swaroop

In light of President Joe Biden’s executive order to increase SNAP benefits, this is a good time to talk about food security. We often see this term thrown around without actually understanding what it is, how do we get there, and what a food secure community actually looks like. First, let us define food security. You can find a variety of definitions, but a basic definition is the “consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

So how then does a community achieve food security? One proposed system is the concept of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty refers to the use of ecologically-friendly food systems to produce, distribute, and consume food, which often means that the emphasis is placed on local food systems as opposed to national. Notice that this differs slightly from food security. Food security is concerned with households having access to foods by any means. Whether that is through corporations or through local food systems. While this seems like a matter of choosing sides at first, one will find out that a sustainable food system will not only benefit consumers, but also small food businesses and farmers.

Why would businesses and national corporations care about food security? The answer lies in productivity and employee wellness. According to the CDC, over $225 billion are lost in productivity each year, and “marked increases” have been seen in poor health outcomes due to “behavior, culture, and community market.” While food security is not the sole determinant of health, it is crucial. A lack of a nutritious diet can lead to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes. These outcomes lead to more time taken off and piling healthcare costs for businesses and their employees.

Keeping this information in mind, we can finally answer the question, what does a food secure community look like? Let us first look at the community perspective. Some goals of food security on a community level include developing a sustainable food system through linking farmers with consumers, promoting collaboration amongst community members, and ensuring that anyone, regardless of income level, can purchase nutritious food. This ties in with food sovereignty in how we can link consumers with farmers in a local-based system.

There are several practical ways we can achieve food security through a community-based food production system:

  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a system where consumers purchase a share of the farmers harvest, and each week the farmer provides his weekly harvest to consumers. This way, both parties benefit. Consumers get access to fresh local food and farmers have a guaranteed market. Policy workers could get involved in creating laws that would make this system more accessible to low-income families.
  • Neighborhood farmers markets in food-desert areas increase access to local produce during the growing system.
  • Community Gardens promote collaboration among local residents
  • Community Food Assessments involve a diverse group of stakeholders who assess the food system currently in place and hear feedback from various community members to further improve food security.
  • Food prescription programs links chronically ill people with nutrition literacy and fresh produce during the growing season.
  • The “10-Cent A Meal” program strengthens the link between local producer growers and school system.

While these programs can have a drastic impact on food security, we must address the elephant in the room: what happens during a non-growing season? How do consumers have access to produce? This is where businesses can come in, providing affordable fresh food to communities like Detroit. Community stake holders can come together and discuss what types of business they need to maintain food security. The need for a fancy coffee shop is probably not as much as the need for a new grocery store. However, the decision to open a grocery store in an underserved community is a tricky one. From the business perspective, they may see a risk in opening a store in an economically distressed area, which may prevent them from doing business there at all. This can be alleviated though by providing incentives such as low-income housing tax credits for businesses to open in the area. Outside of opening, businesses can do more through partnering with neighborhood-based organizations to fight food security. Neighborhood organizations, such as churches and community development corporations, offer a localized connection with the community, offering food distribution sites. An example of this is the Wholesome Wave Organization, which specializes in making produce affordable. Recently, they partnered with Target to help low-income families in the Los Angeles area have access to free produce. One may ask, what is the incentive for businesses to partner with these organizations? There are many potential benefits which include, but are not limited to increased sales of products and services, positive media coverage, increased employee engagement, and potential tax donations for contributions. Having businesses both open in these areas and partnering with non-profit organizations can help the Detroit community flourish.

The goal of this brief was to lay out practical ways food security can be accomplished through community investment. As we saw, there are ways that all parties can benefit from food security, and one party does not have to benefit at the expense of another. Creating programs that will incentivize businesses to engage in health partnerships, for example, or laying the groundwork to create community gardens could be potential methods to combat and address food insecurity. Although there is no overnight fix, small advances can add up over time, and we can see the Detroit community that is thriving and is food secure.

Vinayak Swaroop is a student at the University of Michigan working as an intern at Authority Health.