Education and advocacy to improve a city’s food system
Massachusetts’ third largest city illustrates stark disparities in the food system. Surrounded by farms cultivating some of the most fertile cropland in the world, many of Springfield’s residents have poor access to fresh produce. Home to some of the Commonwealth’s preeminent medical facilities, the city’s families suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses, particularly diet-related diseases.
Those gaps have spurred some of the city’s community organizations to action. Since 1998, Gardening the Community (GTC) has been working with youth in the city’s Mason Square neighborhood. The young participants grow fruits and vegetables on abandoned lots that have been transformed into gardens, earn stipends for their work, develop crucial job skills, and feed their community. They learn about sustainable practices, capturing rainwater for irrigation and using bicycles to deliver the food they grow. Produce grown through the program is sold at a local farmers market and to local corner stores and restaurants, and goes home with the gardeners to create healthier meals for their families.
Through educating youth and the broader community about food, GTC is also promoting justice and equity. “It has always been Springfield residents of color without much privilege leading this organization,” says Liz O’Gilvie, chair of the GTC board. “That’s what has made us really strong.” By basing the organization’s mission on a racial justice analysis rooted in an understanding of the systemic inequities of the food system, youth, staff and board members learn that they are doing more than growing food, they are working to fix a system that has failed them and their neighbors.
The structural racism of the food system is hard to miss in Springfield. The Mason Square neighborhood is full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores selling processed food, but no retail outlets selling fresh, healthy food. As a result, preventable dietary diseases like diabetes and obesity are prevalent. A community-based campaign to bring a grocery store to the neighborhood has been going on for years, but even though residents have demonstrated the buying power that they wield and worked with developers on plans, Mason Square is still without a supermarket. “We need a market that is reflective of the breadth of the community, with local people involved in the development and management and potentially as worker-owners,” says Liz. “We need something people can be excited about, for it to work.”
Rather than just waiting and hoping, Springfield’s food system leaders and organizations are finding ways to change how community members eat. Since Gardening the Community has proven that changing the way youth interacted with food is an effective way to change eating habits and health outcomes, and an effective community- and equity-building model, the Springfield Food Policy Council has focused its energy on other ways to reach Springfield’s children. The Council advocated for the school district to apply for the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides all students breakfast and lunch at no cost, eliminating the stigma of certain students receiving free meals. Thanks in part to the Council’s advocacy, the district superintendent mandated breakfast in the classroom for all schools in 2017. School nurses immediately noticed a 25 to 30 percent reduction in visits from children complaining of hunger.
At the same time, students in 26 of the City’s schools participate in curriculum-aligned school garden programs which not only serve an educational purpose, connecting students with the processes of food production, they also produce healthy food for students to sample and take home. Consumption of salad increases significantly when kids grow the same ingredients they see on the salad bars. Since the school gardens don’t provide enough fresh vegetables to meet the demand or regulations for school meals, SFPC’s advocacy has led the district to also build relationships with local farms, so a significant amount of the produce comes from nearby.
Even food waste is turned into an opportunity for learning about the food system in Springfield schools. Students toss their food scraps into classroom worm bins, and learn about the food cycle as those leftovers are turned to compost, which then nourish the soil in their gardens for the following year’s crops.
And all of these practices have led to policy changes in Springfield. An ordinance was passed in 2012, codifying community gardens’ right to sell produce they grow and providing a structure for how they would be regulated. The school wellness policy was recently amended to include language to reflect the commitment to purchasing local produce.
Despite all of these efforts and improvements, the disparities remain stark and the challenges significant. By getting involved at an early age, Liz says, youth are learning that they can change the system and are developing the skills to do so. Food connects people and communities with land, the environment, the economy, and so many other issues, and so organizing around food issues has the potential to be transformative for Springfield.
Liz was part of the process of developing the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, which helped her connect Springfield’s efforts with the broader food system. “My work in the food system was informed by the planning process,” says Liz. “It helped me to understand that land issues farmers face in rural areas are the same issues we face in the city, and that children in the Hilltowns are as much at risk of food insecurity as those in Hampden County. Participating in the discussions while the Plan was being written helped me see more clearly about how to think about local food systems as a whole and to develop partnerships for working together to improve access across the state.”