As the COVID-19 shutdown cratered the economy, one of the most enduring images from the early months will undoubtedly be long lines at food banks across the country. Food access quickly emerged as a critical inequity exacerbated by the pandemic – leading to endless lines at food banks, families struggling to put food on the table, and school closures that destabilized food access for millions of children.
In the spring of 2020, the Co-Op at 1st in Denver immediately saw an increase in need far beyond what it could meet. In response, the Co-op at 1st became one of the Partnership for a Healthier America’s first partners in the COVID-19 Fresh Food Fund, a program that we designed to put high-quality produce on more kitchen tables of families lacking good food.
At a time when restaurants and farms were discarding food because of the pandemic, we worked to redirect hearty greens, fruits, and vegetables to Denver families in need. At the height of the program, in the early summer of 2020, the Co-Op at 1st was distributing 22-pound boxes of fresh food to 550 families a week.
Along the way, something interesting happened: Denver families started asking for more produce and fresh foods from the Co-Op. Families who had gone far too long without access to desirable fruits and vegetables wanted more.
The experience in Denver showed us that it was possible to create a market for nutritious foods, if we could just make them accessible.
Here’s what we know: families in underserved communities – faced with long commutes to grocery stores, high price tags, and damaged or molding fruits and vegetables – buy less produce than is necessary to live healthy and well. The problem isn’t always a lack of desire; rather, it is often a lack of supply of high-quality, appealing, and affordable produce to meet demand. The pandemic’s impact on food access overall – which disproportionately impacts communities of color and neighborhoods with lower-than-average incomes – spotlighted a more acute concern: fresh food, which is critical to health, doesn’t reach our communities equally.
The pandemic showed that we live in a two-tiered food system where some Americans have access to an abundance of good food while 1 in 10 Colordans – primarily those with low income and people of color – face food insecurity. They find that good food is either too hard to reach, too expensive, or the produce for sale is scarce. At the Partnership for a Healthier America, our vision is that every family in the United States has ready and affordable access to good food. We believe this is at the very core of food equity.
Here’s what we can do to create a more equitable food system:
First, we must identify, build, and demonstrate demand for fruits and vegetables. If we can increase the availability of servings of fresh produce in underserved communities, as we are doing through the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Good Food for All program, we can jumpstart the demand for healthier food options.
That’s why we have committed to adding 50 million servings of vegetables and fruits to the marketplace through programs like Good Food for All. The program delivers produce to every member of the family, two meals per day, seven days per week for 12 successive weeks. That builds demand for produce. We measure how much they want it by asking what they would pay to continue receiving it.
Once this demand is measured and highlighted, we are in a stronger position to challenge retailers to begin meeting the demand of families in their community with high-quality offerings of greens, berries, squashes, sweet potatoes, and more.
The best part of this demand-to-market model is that we know it works. The Co-op at 1st now offers produce at wholesale prices to program participants, selling 40 boxes of fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables for as low as $20 dollars per box every week, creating a sustainable, local answer to families who were not able to enjoy produce as part of their diets before this program.
We now know what transforming the food landscape in pursuit of health equity means. It means proving a market, showcasing demand, and creating opportunities for retailers to meet it.
It means equipping families, communities, and grocers with the momentum and resources for sustainable, long-lasting food equity – because if we’re going to change what’s on our kitchen tables, we need to change what’s on the supermarket shelves.
Nancy E. Roman, of Chapel Hill, N.C., is the President and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America.