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Mission to the desert

MSU experts wrestle with food access at Cristo Rey


High-level officials and ground-level experts, from MSU President Lou Anna Simon on down, assembled at the Cristo Rey Community Center gym Thursday for a Thanksgiving reality check.

In a gym used to feed hungry people, the experts looked for ways to apply the university’s expertise to the persistent problem of “food deserts,” low-income neighborhoods without access to healthy food.

Simon herself gave the opening remarks, to demonstrate that the huge, agriculturally minded university a few miles away was taking its land grant mission to heart.

“We believe we have to start doing things differently,” Simon said. “We weren’t hearing and understanding what we needed to know to make a difference in all the matters that relate to food security and insecurity.”

Simon defined food access the way most experts have begun to talk about the problem, as obesity and related health issues hit low-income communities along with hunger.

“It’s not just having food, but having the right food, prepared in the right way, that bends the needles on all the health issues that we know make a difference in learning,” Simon said.

Joseph Garcia, Cristo Rey’s executive director, was impressed to see Simon at the forum.

“I was pleased to see deans here as well,” Garcia said after the forum. “There’s a lot of expertise at MSU. We ought to be able to connect those dots.”

Garcia took the opportunity to school the assembled academics and experts on the reality of feeding hungry people.

“People think they know us,” he said.

“They think they know the issues. The reality is, they are layers away from what’s going on.”

In a few days, Cristo Rey volunteers and staffers would be busy supplying about 400 Thanksgiving dinners, in sitdown and delivery form.

“I’d like people to remember that there’s 364 other days in the year,” Garcia said. “I’ve got more than enough volunteers for this event.”

Garcia told the group about Cristo Rey’s 50-year evolution, from a community center bursting with activities and events to a borderline rescue mission struggling to maintain food, medical and financial programs, mostly for the working poor.

“This gym space was used to play bas ketball, to host fun events, quinceañeras (15th birthday parties for girls), social activities,” Garcia said. “Today we use this gym as a space to feed people. Last year we fed over 26,000 meals here. We’re changing as the neighborhood changes.”

Against a backdrop of festive stacks of hay and Thanksgiving decorations, Garcia implored food donors and volunteers to remember Cristo Rey in summer, when school lets out and the need is even more acute.

Rich Pirog, director of the Center for Regional Food Systems at MSU, said about 1.8 million Michigan residents, including 300,000 children, live in lower income communities that have “restricted access to healthy foods.” Lorraine Weatherspoon, a professor of human nutrition at MSU, decried the “misconception that [low-income] individuals don’t care about healthy food or they don’t want it.” She said her research has repeatedly shown otherwise. “They just can’t get to it,” she said.

Pirog introduced the idea of the “food swamp,” a density of junk food in a neighborhood that research has shown can be a better predictor of obesity than the lack of a full-line grocery store.

Weatherspoon said low-income neighborhoods are offered “a plethora of high-calorie, high-sugar foods” linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and a host of other ailments.

Pirog called for a “systems approach” to the problem, including not just food, but also housing, transportation and social connectivity.

“If you have to take one or two buses to get to the full-line grocery store, you don’t really have food access,” Pirog said.

Joan Nelson, executive director of the east side’s Allen Neighborhood Center, cited a growing network of integrated programs there, including a neighborhood garden and hoop house, gardening education, exercise programs in the park and a weekly farmers’ market that doubles the value of SNAP benefits.

“We see life as an integrated whole, not just having a breadbasket program,” she said.

When the subject of food co-ops came up, Nelson winced.

“We lost the East Lansing Food Co-op recently, so it’s a painful topic for a lot of people,” Nelson said.

Pirog said half a dozen applicants around the state have asked the Michigan Good Food Fund for financing and technical help to start co-ops.

The fund is a public-private partnership modeled after programs in Pennsylvania, California and Illinois to provide “flexible, patient capital” to “good food” enterprises that benefit food deserts. MSU is among the fund’s supporters.

Pirog declared that the federal Healthy Food Financing program, which provided $3 million in seed money to the Michigan Good Food Fund in 2013, “is definitely investing in co-ops, but you have to be loan ready, with the right person managing the co-op.”

After the forum wrapped up, Garcia said it was a good start to what he hoped would be a long-term relationship.

Among the MSU officials Garcia met before the forum was Prabu David, dean of MSU’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences. The two men talked about how to tell Cristo Rey’s story “in a real way.”

“My goal here was to connect with a few experts, take them on a little tour, put a face to a concept,” Garcia said. Behind him, wranglers carted away a wooden table hand-crafted for the forum by Charlotte, Michigan-based woodworker Nathan Shaver. MSU will haul the table to other places around the state for more food access forums.

“I appreciate data,” Garcia said. “I appreciate matrixes. But we are not cogs, we’re people.”


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