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'Food security is not just a COVID problem': Community leaders turn to new data for neighborhood solutions

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Posted at 7:55 AM, Jan 25, 2022

CLEVELAND — Lack of good nutrition remains a problem throughout several Cleveland neighborhoods, which has been made worse by the pandemic.

Cleveland is one of the highest poverty cities in the country,” said Dr. Darcy Freedman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine. “In Cleveland, we have higher rates of food insecurity than the state. The state has higher rates of food insecurity than the nation.”

Freedman is one of many researchers examining the disconnect, which resulted in data from a study completed through CWRU’s Swetland Center for Environmental Health.

“The problem of food insecurity is a problem with a broken system So, in this work we've tried to identify, well, where are the places to address the system as the problem rather than individuals sort of reacting to a faulty system?”

The study examined food insecurity in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker, Buckeye-Woodhill and Central neighborhoods, which are historically redlined. Data revealed one out of two Clevelanders used food pantries in 2019. In 2020, that number jumped to 70%. The study also shows Clevelanders who receive SNAP benefits consistently, fail to consume key nutrients to help prevent chronic disease and support their immune systems.

“One of the areas that might be an opportunity to intervene are things like how do you increase job security for people in the community,” Freedman said. “When you're struggling with income, when you're struggling to meet basic needs, food is definitely going to be a need you're constantly juggling.”

So now comes a solution including a 21st-century city plan. Freedman says they hope to help create a city office dedicated to food and environmental justice. An interactive map of emergency food safety locations in Cleveland, including food pantries, hot meals, and community gardens, would also be key.

“What this study really highlighted is how many opportunities there will be if we invest in efforts to really improve community empowerment and food systems work,” said Dr. Freedman. “It's targeting change at the system level change that centers this goal of nutrition equity to hopefully improve economic opportunity, food security and fair access to fresh and healthy foods in neighborhoods.”

'Research for research sake'

This study, while led by CWRU researchers, was mostly dependent on community leaders such as Michelle B. Jackson.

"We each brought our own activist piece to supporting this, but also perhaps nudging it in a direction that was a little more community-centric focused,” she said. “I've always been super concerned about people having food…I can remember back in my youth it was, Oh, people in Africa are starving, you know, people in India are starving. [It] never occurred to me at that time that people in the United States are starving.”

Jackson, who lives in Ward 4, says it was important for the community’s voice to be heard and included in the rooms where solutions are being decided.

“We're always studied, but nothing changes,” said Jackson. “We appreciate research for research's sake, but we're doers because each and every one of us is activists in our own little space of what we do. So, that allowed us to actually take some of what we had learned, some of our ideas and come up with what would you do.”

Jackson helped conduct community workshops in her neighborhood to better understand the need for quality food and resources through one-on-one interviews. She was also instrumental in meetings with elected officials, food retailers and partner organizations like the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

“That lack of a system for food security is not just a covid problem. It is a problem,” Jackson emphasized. “An equitable food system is one that creates an environment for healthy body, mind and spirit.”

Cleveland’s city council is simultaneously taking a different step to address the issue. On Monday, the council adopted regulations for small box stores selling little to no fresh food. The new rules limit how close the stores can be in an effort to help curb food deserts, which are areas where people have little to no access to fresh food.