The New Face of Hunger: Bridging the Food Insecurity Gap
By Francie Szostak Dekker | Photos By Jim Klousia 3
“There is no famine happening in Madison,” says Andy Russell, executive director of the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison, “but real estate keeps getting more and more expensive, and many families have to make choices like, do we put food on the table or buy gas to get to our jobs? Can we afford meals and pay rent this month?”
This the new face of hunger in America: families and individuals trying to make ends meet but finding it difficult to provide enough food through conventional means. Low-wage jobs, the high cost of childcare, and the rising costs of housing and healthcare all create challenges for families.
In 2006, the USDA even changed their lexicon to more accurately represent this new reality by replacing the word “hunger” in reports with the term “food insecurity,” which they define as having uncertain access to food. Due to lack of money or accessibility, food insecure households do not have enough safe and nutritious food for a healthy lifestyle and may run out of food, cut back the size of meals or skip meals altogether. Food insecurity, by this definition, is often hard to see—for example, the neighbor who pays rent and utilities each month but struggles to fill the cupboards at home. Food insecurity affects many Americans around the country, and households in Madison and Dane county are no exception.
Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project estimates that in Dane County 11.8 percent of all people and 17.5 percent of children are food insecure. Breaking that rate down even further, food insecurity exceeds one in three for some of the most vulnerable groups, including households that contain a disabled person (37.7 percent), Hispanic households (34.5 percent), African American households (34.6 percent), and single mother households (34.9 percent). Public Health Madison & Dane County found that while food insecurity is typically common among those with less education, Wisconsin has seen an increase in food insecurity among those with at least some college education. From 2008 to 2014, 59.4 percent of those experiencing food insecurity had some college education or more, a 14 percent rise from the previous seven-year stretch.
Despite the high rates of food insecurity, Madison residents are lucky to have many organizations, groups and individuals working to improve food access and affordability for all residents. They are capitalizing on Madison’s unique setting of being both the state’s capital city and an urban area surrounded by vibrant agricultural communities. Collaboration at the epicenter of food policy and production for our state has fostered many programs that help households answer modern-day food insecurity questions, such as how to afford both utilities and food, and how to purchase fresh, local, healthy food on a very tight budget or using nutrition assistance benefits.
Food Pantries and Meal Programs
For many individuals and families facing food insecurity, food pantries and meal programs are a necessary lifeline and even “a tool to prevent homelessness,” says Russell. “Allowing people the option to not worry about feeding their family and focus on their other expenses keeps a lot of people in their homes.”
The Catholic Multicultural Center offers a free meal program open seven days a week and a food pantry that households can visit twice a month. Russell shares that having both the meal program and pantry are necessary because they help different groups of people. “We mainly see homeless individuals with no place to cook joining us for the community meal, whereas the pantry is great for those who have a place but can't afford food and a house at the same time. The panty gives them the opportunity to cook and eat as a family.” The center also offers services beyond emergency food, providing for other immediate needs like showers and laundry as well as education and employment assistance programs.
In addition to accepting donations from local church food drives and purchasing food from the Second Harvest Food Bank in Madison, the Catholic Multicultural Center grows produce for their pantry and meal program in two gardens they operate. Being a pantry and meal site that serves many ethnicities (people from 28 countries participate in the center’s English as a second language classes), they try to offer a wide range of foods, including many different oils, grains and legumes.
The Catholic Multicultural Center is a choice pantry, meaning community members get to shop the pantry instead of receiving a prepacked bag of items. “Back when we used to give everyone the same things, we’d find cans tucked in places around the building,” says Russell. “People didn't want to waste the food, so if it was something they couldn’t use or eat, they’d leave it here. Now people can choose based on what types of foods they eat and what they can prepare.”
Access to Farmers Markets
The iconic Dane County Farmers’ Market (DCFM) is one of the places to be on a Saturday morning in Madison. The state’s largest producer-only market circles the state capitol building, and the energy from passionate vendors and shoppers is tangible. But what may not be as noticeable is the number of people facing food insecurity shopping at the market. During the 2016 season, just shy of 350 households receiving FoodShare/SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) shopped at the DCFM. To help expand access to more community members, farmers markets are beginning to accept supplementary food dollars like FoodShare and WIC Farmers Market vouchers to pay for locally grown and raised food. Through a process called electronic benefits transfer (EBT), community members can use their FoodShare card like a debit card at the farmers market. Using an EBT machine, they indicate how many dollars they would like to take out of their account and receive farmers market tokens to shop with. At the end of the market, farmers turn in any EBT tokens received for cash. Nearly 1,000 EBT transactions were processed during the 2016 season.
DCFM Manager Sarah Elliot says this program helps to debunk the myth that local food is always expensive. “While being able to use their FoodShare may draw them in, community members shopping the market also quickly realize local market prices are not that expensive. We also constantly hear remarks that the quality is so much better, so it does not spoil as quickly as produce from big box stores.”
While 13.3% of Wisconsin's 5.7 million population receive FoodShare benefits, equaling over 8 million dollars, only 1 percent of that amount is spent at farmers markets. To further promote and incentivize this option, six Madison-area markets currently participate in the “double your dollars” program run by the Community Action Coalition (CAC). Through this valuable program, shoppers using their FoodShare benefits can receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to $25 per market day.
“2016 was a year for growth,” says CAC Food Security Specialist Erica Anderson. “622 households participated and $35,600 were redeemed just in Double Dollars, a 56 percent increase from the previous year that can be largely attributed to the addition of the Dane County Saturday Market [to the program].”
CAC has promoted the Double Dollars program through traditional means, such as flyers, bus advertisements and its website, but Anderson said most FoodShare users find out about the program through word-of-mouth. “In addition to hearing from social service agencies, most referrals come from people telling their friends and neighbors how happy they are to be able to use the Double Dollars program because it allows them to provide more produce for their family than they could otherwise.” Anderson shared that currently populations of color have not used the program as much as white households. “We’re really trying to create an equity strategy to make all the markets intentional, accessible and welcoming for all”
The Madison Area Farmers’ Market Double Dollars program has support from both the city and the state and is funded by a variety of groups, including the healthcare systems in Madison, federal and private grants and fundraisers organized by outside groups. “The Madison Area Chefs Network held a fundraiser at the end of Restaurant Week that raised $5,000 to $6,000,” said Anderson. “It was incredible to see all these people who are passionate about good food come together to support access to good food for all.”
In addition to shopping at farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) is a popular way to purchase local food and know exactly where it is coming from. CSA is often described as a subscription to a local farm where members or shareholders receive weekly or bi-weekly boxes containing whatever produce is at its peak that week. However, the FairShare CSA Coalition in Madison believes CSA is much more than that. “CSA is a powerful investment in your health, community and local economy. It’s a partnership between farms and consumers that keeps independent businesses thriving, helps families eat seasonal, local produce, and charges farmers and consumers with the responsibility of building a strong, equitable food system.”
The organization believes the word community includes the whole community and offers a costsharing program called Partner Shares that provides financial assistance to limited-income households for purchasing CSA vegetable shares. “Partner Shares was founded early on in FairShare’s existence,” says FairShare Executive Director Erika Jones. “The idea of making local food fair and accessible for all, no matter their finances, is a core principle.”
The Partner Shares program is funded through private donations, grants and fundraisers held throughout the year, and it is able to raise enough each year to partner with approximately 180 households, equating to more than 600 people, each season. For eligible households, FairShare will contribute 50 percent, up to $300, toward the cost of shares from FairShare-endorsed CSA farms. Partner Shares participants work with FairShare to complete an affordable payment plan for the remaining cost of their share. Since 2010, FairShare has also been able to use EBT for processing FoodShare benefits to pay for the cost of shares.
FairShare prides itself on being one of the options in the Madison area to bridge the gap between access to fresh, healthy and affordable food for all. “Our favorite comments we hear a lot are those from Partner Shares participants who didn’t think they could afford fresh, organic produce,” said Jones. “Through the Partner Shares program they are now realizing their ability to eat healthy on a limited budget.”
The stories shared above are just a small collection of organizations, programs and services in Madison working to address food insecurity as well as its contributing factors. There are many other small, neighborhood-based programs and individuals working throughout our region, all with the shared goal of making food insecurity a thing of the past. We at Edible Madison are proud to live where so many people are working to do good in our communities. Please read a few more of their stories here on our website:
Check back again for additional stories in this mini-series.
This article has been updated from the print version to correct the number of people in Wisconsin who receive FoodShare benefits.