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Food Insecurity and Food Waste in the Big Apple

By Kieran Downey
Where food insecurity plagues Bronx residents, one organization brings health literacy to classrooms.

In the shadows of Manhattan’s bright lights and skyscrapers, families and individuals live in neighborhoods without access to fresh produce and groceries. Morrisania is just one example. Located in the South Bronx, Morrisania is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. According to the Department of Health, the rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, mental illness, depression and infant mortality are all extremely high. While we tend to associate these issues with a lack of affordable housing, good jobs and healthcare, beneath the surface food insecurity plays a major role as well.

According to CBS News, the Bronx ranked last out of 62 counties in New York state on important health outcomes, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which directly relate to a shortage of fresh and affordable food options.

These problems are connected to numerous socioeconomic realities in the area, including a low minimum wage, a lack of job opportunities, an inability to prepare time-consuming meals from fresh ingredients, and higher costs of raw foods versus prepared foods.

Parents in the South Bronx working full-time for minimum wage struggle to properly feed their children. This raises the question as to whether the root of the problem is the lack of supermarkets or a lack of a living wage for residents in the neighborhood. For Michelle Friedman, the communications director at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), this question guides her work.

In 2010, policymakers tried to address food insecurity by incentivizing Associated Foods to build a location in Morrisania. Despite these good intentions, the supermarket was not nearly as successful as expected. “I’m not surprised that one supermarket didn’t make a difference,” Friedman said. “It’s such a vast problem. It’s kind of like a Band-Aid on a heart attack.”

NYCCAH believes that the problem needs to be addressed on a much larger scale. The organization advocates for solutions that approach the situation more holistically, such as free breakfast for New York City public school students and a higher minimum wage for workers.

Let the Students Be the Farmers

Universal free breakfast is one of the many ways to address this massive issue in the New York City school system. Mark Naison, a professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham University, believes there’s a lot of room for improvement with food education for children.

ART BY ALINA KWIATKOWSKI

“Community farms and gardens are great, but school is the place for it,” he said. Along with many other food justice activists, Naison thinks schools should be required to have space and class instruction for students about good nutrition habits.

One organization, the Green Bronx Machine, does just that. With multiple urban farm projects in the South Bronx, the nonprofit offers food education and hands-on farming experience to students.

On the fourth floor of P.S. 55, an elementary school adjacent to a large public housing project and surrounded by fast food joints, the Green Bronx Machine has built an indoor farm and kitchen, dubbed the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. K-5 students harvest kale and spinach year-round from one of seven hydroponic towers, then learn how to prepare meals out of fresh ingredients.

Across all of its projects, the organization has grown over 60,000 pounds of produce since 2010. In a neighborhood where children face a 37 percent rate of food insecurity and a 59 percent poverty rate, the Green Bronx Machine’s curriculum increases student engagement, attendance and test scores, all while improving health literacy.

Stephen Ritz, the passionate founder of the Green Bronx Machine, is a Bronx native who shares boundless optimism for his students. “Green Bronx Machine was born out of the belief that we can all succeed,” Ritz said. “If you teach those who are traditionally apart from success and make them a part of success, together we can all prosper.”

While articles, studies and supermarkets keep cropping up, if the generation experiencing food insecurity remains unfamiliar with effective solutions, the status quo will only continue. Allowing children to grow their own food and learn how to maintain a healthy diet addresses the issue head-on.

“We’re sitting on the biggest opportunity for us in the South Bronx—growing, resourcing and recycling our way into a whole new economy,” Ritz said. While the team of volunteers at the Green Bronx Machine don’t claim to have completely solved food insecurity and poor health outcomes for their students, the learning environment they have cultivated offers promise.

Combating Food Waste

In New York City, food waste is an ironic accomplice to food insecurity. Here at Fordham, around forty blocks away from Morrisania, we often see perfectly good (tasty or not) food get wasted every day. College campuses across the country waste food at every meal, a problem that stems from being unable to predict exactly how much food is needed for students.

According to Recycling Works, a program in Massachusetts, the average college student creates approximately 142 pounds of food waste per year. College students around the country have recognized this issue and started their own programs to reduce food waste.

The Food Recovery Network, started at the University of Maryland, College Park, identified a space to recover meals back in 2011. Since then, the organization has repurposed over 3.2 million pounds of food across 230 universities nationwide. Preventing this food waste from reaching landfills has also saved 6.1 million kilograms of carbon emissions. (Fordham has yet to launch its own Food Recovery Network chapter.)

Students aren’t the only ones making an effort. Shake Shack, a true New York City college student’s weakness, is committed to fighting food waste, too. The limited edition “wastED Juice Pulp Cheeseburger,” crafted by chef Dan Barber, featured smashed leftover vegetable pulp from a cold-pressed juice operation, melted cheese from Jasper Hill cheese trimmings, bruised beet ketchup and honey mustard mayo, all served on a repurposed rye bread bun. 11 percent of the profits on each of these burgers was donated to City Harvest NYC, the city’s leading food rescue organization.

 

A Better Food System

Despite the progress organizations like Green Bronx Machine and the Food Recovery Network have made to address food insecurity and food waste, creating a better food system in New York City requires much more.