Food for Thought

By Annie Rosemurgy | Above: Michelle Orge, CEO of Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. Photography by Hillary Schave.

Food is fundamental. Good nutrition is not only the backbone of a healthy lifestyle, but food is also an expression of family, community and cultural traditions. During the height of the pandemic, images of long lines outside of food pantries highlighted the fact that not everyone in our community has equal access to high-quality food and the peace of mind that food abundance provides.

According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, one in eight people deal with food insecurity in the U.S. In Dane County, 7.8% of our population faces hunger, reported Feeding America in 2019, the latest figure available. Food insecurity is defined as a “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“When households are food insecure, people worry about food running out without having money to buy more. Often, they cut back on the size of meals or skip meals due to lack of money,” cites a Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) 2016 report titled “Hunger & Food Security in Wisconsin and Dane County.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic and current inflation issues top of mind, a number of local experts provided insight on the topic of food insecurity, what resources exist to help struggling community members and innovative programs that have launched in our area to help people put food on their table.

What is Food Security?

The USDA defines food security as the opposite of food insecurity, meaning that an individual has access to food at all times for an active and healthy life.

“I’d really like to see this definition broaden to include the notion that not all food is created equal,” says Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin CEO Michelle Orge. She prefers an “aspirational” goal of nutrition security, which she explains as a step beyond simply providing enough food, and focuses on the quality, cultural relevance and nutrition for an individual or community.

“Hunger is the physiological sensation of needing food, and that is the first rung on the ladder of food security needs. People need enough to eat every day; it’s non-negotiable,” says UW-Madison Division of Extension Healthy Community coordinator Claire Mance. “The goal with nutritional security is one step higher; ensuring that a community can thrive and not just survive.”

Food security has a psychological component as well.“True food security exists when I not only have enough to eat today, but I am at ease that I will have enough tomorrow and next month as well. Food security means not bearing the stress of not knowing where your next good meal will come from,” says Jess Guffey Culkins, Community Food Systems educator at UW-Madison’s Division of Extension.

A Vicious Cycle

“Hunger makes everything harder,” says Rhonda Adams, executive director at The River Food Pantry, located on the city’s north side. “We can’t work to our potential, live to our potential, parent to our potential if we are living under the threat of food insecurity daily. What I think readers may not realize is that so many people in our communities are living right at the margins of food insecurity. It doesn’t take poverty to create a food insecure scenario. One missed paycheck or an unlucky accident can trigger a food crisis,” says Adams.

Food security is often a moving target.

Nicholas Heckman, food security policy analyst at Public Health Madison & Dane County, says, “… People may move in and out of food insecurity over time; sometimes more than once. Food insecurity can touch the lives of a lot of people and it’s important to create solutions that support both short- and long-term food crises.”

Our Food Security Safety Net

Federally, there’s a robust, multi-level food security system in place to support vulnerable people. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) form a strong base of support that local initiatives then build upon. (In Wisconsin, the SNAP program is called FoodShare.)

Food banks and pantries are the next foundational element of community- based food security. Food from food banks such as Second Harvest and Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin (CAC) provide our many direct-to-consumer partner food pantries with food support. Pantries are located throughout Dane County (see p. 47) as stand-alone buildings and warehouses, or embedded in other significant places such as schools and faith-based organizations.

Beyond the food pantry system, local organizations are working on innovative strategies to strengthen our food system. For instance, the CAC’s Double Dollars program is a collaboration of local agencies that allows recipients of SNAP benefits to extend their purchasing power for fresh, local produce and goods at the area farmers’ markets and Willy Street Co-op. The CAC’s Gleaners, a network of volunteers and donors that safely recover food from grocers, restaurants, bakeries, caterers and restaurants, distributes this food to shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens. The CAC reports that approximately 800,000 pounds of food is collected per year for shelters, community centers, food pantries, senior centers, soup kitchens and low-income apartment complexes. And Second Harvest’s HungerCare Coalition is a tool for healthcare providers to screen for food insecurity as part of routine patient checkups.

Root Causes of Food Insecurity

While emergency food aid will always have a role to support people in a time of crisis, long-term food security can only be achieved by working on the foundational issues that drive it. Structural racism and the inequities it generates are directly reflected in the food system, placing disproportionate impacts on communities of color.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, poverty is the single biggest predictor of food insecurity. “Food insecurity is an income issue,” says Heckman, who authored the PHMDC 2016 report on food insecurity. “There is a strong correlation between food insecurity and poverty, and the widespread availability of jobs that pay sustainable and living wages is one of the best ways to bolster community food security.”

Affordable access to transportation, childcare, housing and healthcare are also strong predictors of local food security. “When people are deciding whether to pay their utilities or car payment or feed their family, these are impossible choices,” says Maggie Gleason, former executive director at Badger Prairie Needs Network, a food pantry in Verona. (Gleason left BPNN in June 2022.)

Geographic areas underserved by retailers that carry fresh, wholesome food have been termed “food deserts” and also contribute to overall food security. Living close to a supermarket or grocery store (and not just a convenience store) reduces risk of overall food insecurity and improves health outcomes. Low-income neighborhoods, rural and inner-city areas are all more likely to lack a grocery store, cites a 2012 USDA report titled “Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts.”

Dueling Woes: The Pandemic and Inflation

In March 2020, the local food security landscape was turned on its head due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It would be hard to overstate what COVID did to food insecurity in South Central Wisconsin,” says Orge. “We went from supporting a robust emergency food infrastructure to operating within an overwhelmed system — literally overnight.”

In effect, the pandemic produced a double whammy on the food system locally and nationally. The sheer number of people requiring emergency food assistance rose dramatically, as the pandemic took hold. “Early in the pandemic we saw a lot of job loss and unemployed people who had never before been forced to question where their next meal would come from,” says Heckman.

“We had double the number of new customers in the spring and summer of 2020,” says Adams.

Orge says Second Harvest and its partners felt the same squeeze. “We had such a rush of people who were in an emergency and overwhelmed, but had no prior experience of how to access emergency food services.”

Not only did food banks and pantries have to respond to the tsunami of local need, they also needed to maintain strict social distancing protocols, something that posed a challenge as these sites are often more than a place to get groceries but also places to gather and socialize closely.

“Our pantry is so much more than food. We have customers who depend on the positive interactions and kindness they receive when they come to the pantry. They look forward to seeing the friendly, familiar faces of the volunteers,” says Gleason.

Luckily, these organizations rose to the challenge. Food banks and pantries came together to brainstorm and collaborate innovative, creative ways to respond. Through hard work and determination they found ways to secure more food, distribute it to those in need and communicate the food insecurity message even more deeply into the community to let vulnerable folks know they were open with food on their shelves.

“Those early days were hectic and overwhelming,” says Adams. But she goes on to say that The River Food Pantry learned lessons from that particularly stressful time that they continue to
use today. “Our customers love the convenience of the drive-up model and we plan to stick with it,” she says.

Customers can select foods from a menu, which are then brought directly to their vehicles by volunteers. They also drive through a section where they can pick fresh produce and desserts, too.

“They get what they need and want from a food perspective and we make sure that we affirm that they are welcome to use this resource and we are happy [they’re] here; this is what we are here for,” says Adams.

While the surge in demand for emergency food aid has come down from its peak, recent economic pressures keep community needs high. “Inflation and costs of food and fuel affect us and our network in the same ways that households are affected,” says Orge.

In addition to high costs at the gas pump and in the grocery store, people are experiencing a reduction in some of the pandemic-inspired economic aid federal programs established during the pandemic, such as the child tax credit.

“Advocates are calling this a ‘hunger cliff,’” explains Heckman, in which relief efforts are dialed back, and more folks cross the margin into food insecurity.

“We are still in the fight for certain,” says Orge. “We are still learning and evolving. We will keep turning all the interconnected gears to work to get this right for people.”

The Youngest Victims

Food insecurity hits kids especially hard. Adequate nutrition impacts all aspects of children’s developing brains and bodies. According to the PHMDC 2016 report, kids from food-insecure homes score lower on standardized tests, repeat grades more often and are referred to school psychologists at higher rates. Food insecure teens are more likely to be suspended from school and to have difficulty in relationships.

When school is in session, this provides a critical stopgap for food insecurity. Area schools provide free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch, and often provide additional aid such as backpacks filled with nutritious, non-perishable goods to see families through weekends and holiday breaks. The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) partners with Second Harvest to offer a variety of ways families can get food when school is out of session, such as the Summer Food Program. Kids from low-income households qualify for two free meals per day, Monday through Friday, at a number of sites over summer break. Other area school districts, such as Middleton and Verona (among others), offer similar programs.

Back in 2020, Midvale Elementary School principal Rebecca Galván quickly realized the impact that school closures would have on her students, and her team of school social workers, teachers, school psychologists and PTO got to work. Through the West High Area Collaborative (a group of parent-teacher organizations), they were able to raise money to provide 320 families with weekly food boxes that were delivered directly to their homes during the spring of 2020 up until MMSD schools returned to live instruction in 2021, keeping families both fed and safe. Boxes included healthy, fresh produce and food from Second Harvest. (The Collaborative also raised money for rent/bill relief for families, and hygiene kits.) Although the box program isn’t running any more, a food pantry continues to operate for Midvale Elementary families at Lincoln Elementary School.

“We connected with families in ways that we never have,” says Galván. “For me, a silver lining is that we’ve all had exposure to how much of an issue this is in our community, how many people are on the margins of security. There is much more visibility.”

Silver Linings

The pandemic and recent inflation have created challenges in our local food system, to be certain. But they’ve also unearthed opportunities to strengthen our system going forward. “The pandemic put urgency behind creating an even more robust food system in Dane County. It exposed gaps and weaknesses. The food system has so many moving parts and we need to make sure each of these parts works,” says Guffey Culkins.

For one, the pandemic did reveal that federal food assistance programs are invaluable. “The pandemic has given us proof of concept that broad expansions to federal nutrition assistance and child nutrition programs can not only work well, but can make a huge impact in reducing hunger and food insecurity,” says Heckman.

COVID also brought about a spirit of collaboration and growth between agencies to face a collective challenge. “We’ve come together [as food pantries] more than ever before. We are in direct conversation with other cohort pantries to learn and grow from all of our experiences to define best practices,” says Gleason.

And, COVID struggles have highlighted the interconnectedness of the food system, unearthing “the value of procuring locally-sourced products for the emergency food system, which both supports our agricultural community and those in need of food,” says Heckman.

For those on the margins, food insecurity can happen in the blink of an eye. When the global pandemic hit, even more people were pulled into food insecurity — including those that never thought they would be in that situation. But as the pandemic recedes from the headlines and our new normal emerges, it’s worth keeping the spotlight on this fundamental human need — to keep food on all of our tables.

Cultural Centering

Beyond meeting bodily nutrition needs, the food insecurity experts we spoke with highlight that food is a central feature of people’s cultural experience.

“Food nourishes our bodies and also our souls,” says Maggie Gleason, former executive director of the Badger Prairie Needs Network. “It’s important to meet people’s nutritional needs, but also to provide foods that are culturally relevant.”

Important moments — holidays and holy days, birthdays and life events — are all marked by sharing food across cultures. “ The highest goal of food security is not only to have good food, but food that is familiar to you, that you know how to prepare, that keeps cultural traditions and foodways alive,” says Claire Mance of UW-Madison’s Division of Extension.

By the Numbers

  • 1 in 8: Number of people facing hunger in the U.S., according to Feeding America.
  • 7.8%: Number of people in Dane County that deal with food insecurity.*

Some households are at greater risk for food insecurity, including:

  • Households with a disabled person (37.7%)
  • Hispanic households (34.5%)
  • African American households (34.6%)
  • Single-parent households (34.9%)

34%: Prior to the pandemic, this percentage of students in Dane County were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. In the Madison Metropolitan School District, that number jumps to 55%.

*It is important to note these are pre-pandemic numbers. The data isn’t in yet for recent statistics, but experts believe these numbers may be greatly underestimating current levels of food insecurity locally.

Little John’s Kitchen

Another inspiring example of meeting community needs and tackling food insecurity is Little John’s Kitchen. The nonprofit partners with grocery stores to take their excess food — usually nutritious fruits and vegetables that can’t be sold due to minor cosmetic issues — and turns them into healthy, chef-quality meals available to anyone, regardless of means. Chef Dave Heide, owner of Liliana’s (which is currently undergoing a change of name and concept, as well as the now-closed Charlie’s on Main) conceived the idea that his third venture would have a philanthropic twist. Here, military veterans are hired for a paid, six-month culinary training contract, readying them for future food-service careers.

Find out more about Wisconsin’s Food Benefits and Resources here.

Read about Madison area Food Banks and Pantries here.

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