Press "Enter" to skip to content

Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: Panel – Food Justice is Access and Affordability

Panel discussion: Food justice is access and affordability. Presented at the the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in Support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank on March 3, 2024.

Panelists:

  • Norbert Wilson, Professor Duke Divinity, Sanford School of Public Policy, and Director, World Food Policy Center, Duke University
  • Mary Oxendine, Relationship Management Fellow, Potlikker Capital
  • Eric Wiebe, Member of the Leadership Committee, Emanuel Food Pantry
  • Will McIntee, Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, The White House
  • Justine Post, Program Director, Rural Advancement Foundation International

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Now I am really excited to welcome our other panelists: Norbert Wilson. Director of the Duke World Food Policy Center and Professor of Food Economics and Community at Duke Divinity School; Mary Oxendine, a Fellow at Potlikker Capital; Eric Wiebe, the Treasurer of the Board, and a member of the Leadership Committee for the Emanuel Food Pantry; and Justine Post, program director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, also known as RAFI. We’re also joined by Will McIntee, Senior Advisor for Public Engagement handling rural, agriculture, nutrition, and diaspora at  from The White House.

Norbert, my friend, it’s so nice to see you. I’ve known Norbert for a long time. He was at Tufts. I’m a Tufts alum, so thank you for being here and thank you for all the work that you do, and thank you for being our, I keep saying comrade in arms as we have done this work.

So I want to ask you this – Craig mentioned this whole person health approach, and you’ve talked about that need for a holistic understanding of what impacts a household’s risk of being food insecure. Why have we not been looking at this whole person holistic approach in the past? What has prevented that?

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

Thank you. I think sometimes it’s just easier to come down to a single metric. Let’s just find the one thing that we can identify and if we can measure it, we’ve got it. But we recognize that when we talk about the issue of food insecurity, it is a complex system that people are a part of.

And it’s not about just getting folks access to food, which is important. I would never want to suggest that isn’t important, but it’s also recognizing that people live in communities and their family situations and there are just challenges with the larger society that we need to address. So it does take that whole of society approach to address this complex issue.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

But as somebody who I know is an agricultural economist, data is very important to you. Those metrics are very important. I think what I’m trying to ask is how do we break people out of their silos? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to do here today, but how do we get individual professions and parts of academia especially to break out of that?

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

Yeah, no, this is a really good question, and it is funny, I’m working on a different project related to this on food waste and we’re talking about convergence and this idea from NSF that different disciplines should come together and not just different disciplines in the academy, but also working with community groups to actually recognize the shared knowledge that we have to move beyond and to actually willing taking the risk of reaching across difference, to come up with innovative solutions.

To come up with solutions that we could never come up with on our own. So it’s that innovation that I think is necessary for us to move forward. And I’m just really grateful for this panel because I think it reflects exactly this idea that it’s going to take folks who are working in community groups, nonprofit sector, the university policymakers to come up with these solutions.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Absolutely. Well, if I can come back to you, Norbert mentioned community groups and the innovation that is within folks with lived experience, and they don’t often get noticed as much as they should. So I’m wondering if you can talk about some of the programs at the national level that include those folks with lived experience and their expertise that are currently in place to reduce hunger.

Will McIntee, The White House

Yeah, happy to touch on a few, and before I get to that, maybe even talk a little bit too about some of the work that we did to connect with leaders with lived experience in the lead up to the White House Conference on Hunger Nutrition House. So we hosted a series of listening sessions that helped to inform the national strategy on hunger nutrition health, including several that were with community leaders who had lived experience with hunger and diet related disease.

These were incredibly important conversations for us to have, very enlightening conversations for us to have, and some of those conversations have continued, especially through the agencies as they continue to implement the national strategy. I wanted to touch on just a couple of the areas where we’ve made progress on. The first pillar of the national strategy was around improving food access and affordability.

And since the conference, USDA has invested nearly $30 million in American Rescue Plan, funding to 264 school districts to support them in improving the nutritional quality of their meals. We mentioned earlier the implementation of the Summer EBT program, a hugely important program for families with school age children to be able to afford food during the summer months.

Right now, part of the policy discussion in D.C. is actually centered around protection of a couple of the programs that we have really fought for and advocated for in this administration. One area I wanted to highlight is the importance of fully funding the WIC program. The administration continues to call for additional funding from Congress to be able to cover what is currently about a $1 billion anomaly in the WIC budget, which would mean that some eligible families who are eligible for WIC may not be able to receive the benefit if the full funding amount is not funded.

So we continue to call that out in addition to the need for additional states to take on the Summer EBT program. USDA also importantly updated the Thrifty Food Plan as well around SNAP, which is another area that we continue to call out, the need to continue to keep that intact, that important to reform.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Can you explain what the Thrifty Food Plan does? You’ve already explained why it’s important, but what does it actually do for folks?

Will McIntee, The White House

Yeah, essentially it updated the amount that families receive based on the price of groceries in their localities. And so it was the first time that that had been updated in many years. And so this is important, especially now as working families are working to be able to afford food. This helps families to receive a benefit that’s closer to being able to fulfill their needs. And so this is an area that we continue to advocate the need to keep that important update intact, that USDA made.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

So important. Thank you for explaining all that. I think it’s helpful if we’re really studying this stage. Mary, we’ve been talking about folks with lived experience. I’m hoping I can turn to you because you work very closely at the local level. I’m wondering what services are available to producers in North Carolina who are trying their best to produce local sustainably grown food?

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital, formerly the Food Security Coordinator for Durham County, North Carolina

What services are available to producers? I think that there’s a lot of opportunity available to producers in the sense of… Particularly in Durham County, there’s a lot of interest around local food. And so we have multiple farmers markets that are available connecting back to this SNAP program. We have a double bucks program that’s offered at all of the farmers’ markets that will essentially double the amount of SNAP dollars that folks want to spend as well as WIC and Section 8 Housing.

Well, I’ll say Durham County is starting a project. The county just closed on 129 acres in North Durham that will open up land for new and beginning farmers, particularly focused on BIPOC farmers. So we’ll really be training up the next generation of farmers.

As a lot of you probably know, our farmers are aging. I think the average age is in the 50s or the 60s. So we want to launch the next generation of farmers to help folks develop generational wealth and also continue on those traditional knowledge of growing using regenerative practices and traditional indigenous knowledge.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

How many acres gain?

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

129 acres.

Danielle Nierenberg

Wow. Congratulations. That’s amazing. And you’re right about the number of aging farmers in this country. Bringing folks back into agriculture is not easy. And I’m wondering if you can just speak a little bit about that and how we can make agriculture cool for people Again.

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

So getting into agriculture is difficult, not just because it’s not cool, but the cost of land is very expensive. It’s also not just the land, but once you get the land, then you need a lot of equipment sometimes. So having the resources, the funding to even just get seeds, get started. And then also that knowledge. Particularly speaking from an indigenous person, we were cut off from our traditional food ways, and so some of that knowledge has been lost over time.

And so just knowing how to farm in a good way. But yeah, and then I think also coming from that indigenous also a black perspective, a lot of times our folks were told by family to leave the farm. A lot of folks, even if you’re formerly incarcerated, may have been forced to work on a farm while you are in incarceration. So there’s a lot of trauma around farming.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Sure.

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

So beyond just making it cool or not really helping folks reconnect with the land and see the earth as a healing rather than a source of trauma.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm talks so much about that, and it’s so important. And Justine, if I can turn to you, I know you’re working very closely with farmers. I just have to say that I’m so pleased Justine is here because RAFI is one of my favorite organizations in the entire world. So thank you for being here. You’re working with churches to expand markets and access for black and brown folks and indigenous farmers. How does that work, and why is that so important right here in North Carolina?

Justine Post, RAFI

Thank you. Yeah, it’s extremely important. We serve as the connector and just the introductory piece. So we work closely with farmers across the Southeast, but in particular North Carolina, we work with a host of farmers of color. Mary, to your point, the resources that are available in North Carolina are huge.

Farming in North Carolina is a great place to farm because there’s just so many nonprofits and service agencies available. There are people that even help you get access to NRCS and FSA and all of those pieces. RAFI being one of them, happen to know that piece. But we really think that churches and faith communities are in a amazing place to be in relationship with farmers.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Sure.

Justine Post, RAFI

Relationships really matter, and the meaning behind that really matters. They are really interested in learning how they can support a farmer, but also just be more connected. And so a few years ago, the Come to the Table started the Farm and Faith Partnerships project, reached out to a handful of churches in Raleigh and connected them with a few farmers of color in the Vance County, Wake County, Henderson area. And they just started what is typically called like a CSA share.

I’m sure a lot of people will know, community supported agriculture, produce subscription, and it requires a lot of trust and a lot of vulnerability, especially for the farmer. And so what the goal is that we ask churches to really step into that vulnerability with farmers and be in that relationship and know that they pay ahead of time for the whole season or sometimes all three seasons, and they hope with them that the weather will be good, that nothing will happen to the soil, that the gophers stay away, all of those sorts of things.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Hurricanes.

Justine Post, RAFI

Hurricanes, I mean, yeah, the list is never ending, right?. And so that move to just ask those folks that really value relationships, that value stories, that value being together, a group of people that come together at least once a week or more to eat together and be together, those are the folks that should be supporting those farmers and to really expand market access for that work.

And we found that it’s just beyond transactional. They want to be together. They want to share meals together, and they want to show up. And so it’s been a really amazing journey to see that happen.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

That’s so awesome. That community building is so important. And Eric, that makes me want to turn to you. I’m wondering if you can talk about the Emmanuel Food Pantry, how it works with small farmers to source the fresh produce that is not often available at food banks, and how that distribution to folks who are clients, how that works and how it’s been effective.

Eric Wiebe, Emanuel Food Pantry

Well, there certainly isn’t one solution to it. I mean, certainly our ultimate goal is to provide high-quality nutritious food to our clients, or should I say, our neighbors every week and fresh produce. And fruit is absolutely central to that.

Unfortunately, produce is highly local because it’s highly perishable, and it means we have to pursue multiple avenues. We have wonderful organizations like Farmer’s Food Share that work directly with North Carolina farmers and provide high quality locally grown food to us is not cheap. I mean, we need grants to make that happen.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

You need infrastructure too.

Eric Wiebe, Emanuel Food Pantry

We need infrastructure. And then we certainly make use of local wholesalers, local grocery stores. We’ve got another organization, Happy Dirt, which is a wholesaler of local, organic, mostly organic, naturally groomed produce. And again, with support from the county government, we have a grant to be able to get produce in them every week.

And then of course, we make use of grocery stores and the food banks in the area. Some of its produce is also sourced locally. We’d love to find more avenues. And then of course, folks like myself, I’m going to be bringing load of collards from my own garden to the pantry tomorrow, and we have lots of local farmers, including faith-based farming groups that bring produce to us every week.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Thank you so much, Eric. And this is a question for both you and Mary. So Eric, you mentioned collards. There are lots of produce that is very culturally relevant, but people have forgotten how to cook these things, how to grow them, how to cook them. How do you re-educate folks who might, this is a question that I think about a lot.

For people who might not have a set of pots and pans or working stoves or refrigerators that work in their own homes, how do you overcome those obstacles to make sure that they can eat those things that their grandparents and their great-grandparents ate and loved and are so nutritious?

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

I think it’s probably multiple strategies.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

That’s right.

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

Well, I’m just going to highlight, I don’t know if Jasmine is here, but there’s an organization called, EatingWell, and they do a lot of cooking demos and food education around how to eat healthy foods but in a cultural way, and they cook a lot of collards and lots of other things. So I think it’s organizations like that that are really meeting people where they are in the community to say, “Here’s how you eat our culturally relevant foods, but let’s cook them in maybe a slightly different way.”

Thinking about folks that don’t have equipment or may be unhoused, well just talking about Iglesia or the Manuel food Pantry, I know that they actually make bags of food that folks can come pick up that are walking through. They have 100s of drivers that come through, but they also, I think last time I heard there were about 50 to 60 people each week that walk through. So they’re giving them bags of food that they can carry rather than big boxes.

But just thinking about, I guess from a food security perspective, how do we support people in getting access to maybe potentially canned foods or foods that are healthy to eat, but thinking about what people’s circumstances are. So it really is specific to every person. People think food security is really simple, but I’m like, we’re thinking about people’s allergies. We’re thinking about are they unhoused? We’re thinking about people’s cooking skills, their eating preferences, and also health. So it gets really complicated.

Eric Wiebe, Emanuel Food Pantry

I think the short answer is it’s definitely a dance and it’s definitely a community solution. So we have a large portion of Latinx coming through every week, but also African Americans, also African immigrants and other refugees in addition to Caucasians and a widely varying diet.

I would say that for me, one of the biggest challenges in terms of food education is really general education around healthy foods as opposed to ultra-processed foods, which unfortunately way too many of our neighbors have been forced to eat, and in fact, that is their normal diet. And so how do we now introduce them to collards that maybe their grandmother cooked, but they haven’t seen in their lifetime?

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Right. It’s such a huge challenge. Thank you both for that. Justine, if I can come back to you and talk about the role that churches and other religious institutions play in their communities. It’s huge. And I’ve learned that over the years, especially around food and hunger.

These are people who care deeply about hunger in the United States and around the world, but they’re really doing a lot on advocating for better policies. Like The White House is trying to instill in so many Congress members like Jim McGovern and Chellie Pingree and others are trying to do, what role do churches play in that and how does RAFI support them?

Justine Post, RAFI

Sure. What I like to say is churches are doing this “yes, and” improvisation thing where yes, they’re meeting a lot of needs, and food is definitely something that churches, rural, urban, suburban, they’ve always been invested in and addressing food insecurity is a big one. Like I mentioned, churches hold stories.

In the Christian tradition, food shows up a lot, and so they’re often interpreting what that means for their actions and how they can be most involved. And so we often work with, so the Come to the Table, we are a program and we invite faith communities to participate in our workshops and trainings and conversations around how we might transition or shift from more charitable acts toward a more justice-centered approach.

But we always do it in the sense that this is always, yes, you’re going to continue to need to feed folks. However, a lot of the folks that are in that work of feeding people and keeping pantries open sometimes twice a week, it’s very exhausting, and they need space to really process that and figure out how they can move on.

And so we try to offer a “yes, and” to allow them to express and say what they’re feeling, create peer connections across the state and learn from other clergy and faith leaders who are also doing this work. And also what are ways that we can step into advocating for stronger policies that would improve SNAP and WIC access. How could we expand school meals so that the burden isn’t always on churches or isn’t always on one to two players to feed children and families?

And so really, we create this container to have those conversations and then also provide them the resources like, “Hey, have you seen our Farm Bill platform? You can see it here. Or if you’ve seen NSTAC’s Farm Bill platform, whatever it is, we try to make the dots and connect them so that they can continue to do both things, which are both really hard to do, but operating in that space of safety and finding a way to do both of those things.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

That “yes, and” approach, and connecting the dots, is all we’ve been hearing. I think that’s so important. Norbert, if I can come back to you. Justine talked about a justice-centered approach, and we know that programs like SNAP are critical. They are vitally important in this country, but they don’t and they can’t solve all of the inequalities that we are seeing in the U.S. right now. What other kinds of solutions are out there and how can we lift them up?

Nobert Wilson, Duke University

I want to make a really clear point about the inequity when we look at food insecurity. If you look at the national statistics of food insecurity in the United States, you’ll see that certain households are much more likely to be food insecure, African-American and Hispanic households, households led by single mothers particularly, and even with single fathers.

There’s something that’s not right about that. You can just look at that and that doesn’t make sense. And so it represents this larger problem that I think is happening in our society. SNAP is a critical program. It really does reduce food insecurity. There are a number of studies that actually show this in a causal relationship. However, when you peer behind those studies and you start to look at what inequalities still remain, even with SNAP, those inequalities persist.

There can be ways of thinking about how do we adjust the SNAP program to actually make it more likely to not only lower food insecurity, but also reduce the disparities in food insecurity. But we can’t just look at a program like SNAP and say, “Well, that’s all that needs to take place,” because at the root of food insecurity is economic instability or inequalities.

In thinking about what are the largest set of policies that we can implement that can help address those issues is critical. We should never forget about taking care of the food challenge that families face, but if we’re not also thinking about the economic opportunities for those families, we’re going to continue doing this effort and we’re never going to get to those root causes.

I do hope that we can continue this conversation about food, but I hope we can bring other partners in to talk about, what does it mean for housing? What does it mean for employment opportunities? And how can we work collaboratively? It’s messy, and it’s not always easy, and it’s costly, but it’s worth it because the cost of not doing it is actually, I believe, greater.  I would hope that we can have this multiple-pronged approach to address these issues of food insecurity.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

It’s so needed, and you’re right, it’s messy. One of my good friends is Adrian Lipscombe from the 40 Acres Project, and she is not just a chef, but also a city planner. We need more folks with multidisciplinary skills to come into these conversations and really help unpack that messiness, dive into it and embrace it in so many ways, right?

Well, I want to come back to you because I’m scared, okay? We saw the expansion of the child tax credit and how successful it was for reducing childhood hunger rates during the pandemic, and I’m wondering what support you see for it for making it bigger, better, more expanded, because we have a really difficult political situation in this country right now.

Will McIntee, The White House

Yes. That’s a great question. I think Norbert just touched on a lot of really important points around eliminating disparities in this work as well. The Child Tax Credit, when that was implemented through the American Rescue Plan in 2021, we saw child poverty be reduced by nearly 50%, and that was across demographics as well. We also saw food insecurity drop by 26% as a result.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Incredible.

Will McIntee, The White House

Norbert was just hitting on all the right points about the need to both address poverty but also create economic opportunity. And so The Child Tax Credit, and both the expanded The Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, we know are proven tools to be able to both reduce poverty and address food insecurity, which is why the Biden-Harris administration continues to push for a permanent expanded child tax credit.

That’s a continued conversation that was actually in the national strategy as well, and something that the president continues to speak to the need. And in addition to so many other areas, again, not to belabor it, but the Summer EBT program is really a huge opportunity. And again, we want to continue to work with the states that have not taken the opportunity from that program to make sure that this truly reaches all of the children and families that could be impacted and could benefit across all 50 states.

And then also, the important work that USDA has done around the community eligibility provision, they introduced a final rule that allowed for close to 3000 additional school districts to be able to provide healthy school meals at no cost to families as well.

So this is important: continued work to both address poverty which is one of the root causes of hunger, while also ensuring that as we’re doing that work, that the food and the benefits that are being provided allow for nutritious healthy food for these families as well.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Absolutely. We are almost out of time, but I’m going to have us go two minutes longer because I want everyone to describe their call-to-action. So based on the work that you do, what do you want to see happen over the next, let’s say four years? Mary, can I start with you?

Mary Oxendine, Potlikker Capital

My big thing is I would say that the Federal Government really needs to take a look at subsidies. We currently subsidize commodity crops, essentially corn, soybeans, things that are going to corn-based ethanol, so fueling our cars, corn-based feed that are going to factory animal farms that are contributing to climate change and ultra processed foods.

While at the same time, the government is spending millions and billions of dollars on public health programs to help people make the healthy option the easy option. So if we changed our subsidies instead of making the commodity crops cheaper and subsidized fruits and vegetables, which the government considers specialty crops and making those cheaper, our families would be able to afford those healthier options. So yeah, that’s mine.

Eric Wiebe, Emanuel Food Pantry

Yeah, everything you said. And just week in, week out, our goal is for our food insecure neighbors provide food, provide healthy, nutritious food, provide culturally appropriate food, and to do so takes money and it takes creativity. As mentioned earlier, there are ways we can bring this together.

We can do those things and address important facets. The climate change, important facets of food waste, Norbert brought up earlier, important facets of good, nutritious food means healthy minds. It means better learning on and on and on.

Will McIntee, The White House

We touched on many of these pieces. Obviously, we’re very focused on implementing the national strategy on hunger, nutrition health, but it goes without saying, we’re at an important moment right now to be able to protect the programs that we’ve spoken about that do help to eliminate hunger and do help families in need.

And so, again, for those here that are able to just continue to educate the folks in your communities about the importance of fully funding the WIC program, the importance in the states that haven’t taken on the Summer EBT program to look at taking on and applying for that program in 2025, the importance of Permanently expanding The Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit that President Biden was able to accomplish, the American Rescue Plan.

Those are all critical and those are all discussions that are ongoing right now. And so just want to lift those up again as important here and now, opportunities and policy issues that would be helpful for folks to continue to educate your communities.

Justine Post, RAFI

My call-to-action would be for faith communities, particularly in North Carolina where we are losing farm land at an alarming rate toward development. Think about their assets and what they have, especially land, and how faith communities can participate in the food system in different ways. I would love to see protection of land that any faith community might own and really know that it’s actually not theirs. They believe that it’s God’s. And so how can we share it and make sure that it’s available for protection and also protecting future farming generations.

Nobert Wilson, Duke University

I have a couple of last words, but I’ll be quick. One, to the research community, this is important work. We should value it and we should continue to do the really thoughtful scientific work that we can do and do it and make sure it gets out to the larger community. Because I’m a faculty member, I want to encourage our students, and I know there are students in this audience, this is valuable work, engaging in issues of food security and realizing it’s part of the larger issue of climate and the larger issues of social inequalities. These are ways that you can make a difference. And I just encourage you all to continue to do the work that you’re doing because I’m not going to be able to do it for much longer, and I want to make sure others come along.