Welcome to my blog! As the coordinator of the Ingredients for Change Campaign, I am spending this year visiting 30 low-income communities throughout the USA that are actively working to create more equitable and accessible healthy food systems to combat food insecurity and disproportionately high rates of obesity and diabetes. It's my job to partner with community groups that help low-income populations gain greater accessibility to healthy food sources. I assist each group in planning a community screening of the feature documentary Food, Inc., in order to create a public engagement and action opportunity, and reach audiences "beyond the choir." The Campaign is being run by Active Voice - my organization - and Participant Media (the film's producer), and is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This blog will provide some snapshots of what I've observed , and some of the inspiring projects and people I've met. I hope you enjoy it - and please feel free to contribute and/or contact me with your questions and perspectives. Thanks for reading!

Disclaimer: The views and perspectives expressed in this blog are those of Matthew Green, and do not reflect the positions of Active Voice, Participant Media, or The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Food insecurity in paradise: Oahu - 4/5/10

In 2008, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture reported that the state – the most isolated island chain in the world, that is strangely part of the U.S. - imports 85 to 90 percent of its food. It’s a hard figure to believe, especially while taking in the view from the Kamehameha Highway, which circuitously winds along the rich coast of Oahu, past fertile farmland and lush green valleys.
  I landed in Honolulu with some time to kill, and decided to take the scenic route – driving the length of this road en route to my planning meeting on the island’s Windward side. The Hawaiian Islands have a year round growing season. The volcanic soil is remarkably fertile, allowing for enormous capacity to grow a vast array of amazing tropical fruits, taro, and “mainland” veggies. That’s what native Hawaiians successfully subsisted on for centuries, before the onslaught of western colonization. It wasn’t revolutionary, it was figuring out how to survive with available resources.
Yet, macaroni salad and Spam - prepared in a surprising variety of forms – are now referred to, more often than not, as typical “Hawaiian” dishes. And when there is the threat of a dock strike on the mainland – as was the case two years ago – many people here panic and hoard, in preparation for empty supermarket shelves and major food shortages. Moreover, on Oahu, stretches of paradise or all too frequently interrupted by the concrete expanse of a typical American strip mall, where the swaying palms give way to golden arches and the familiar smell of deep fried, processed foods.
‘It’s a challenge for us to realize how to become self-sufficient,” says Vickie Punua-McGinnis, a social service worker at the Kualoa-He’eia Ecumenical Youth Project (aka KEY Project) on Oahu’s rural Windward Side. “If anything was to happen, at least we would have food. We wouldn’t have to wait for the ship to come.” Punua-McGinnis help find crucial health and social services for low-income native Hawaiian youth and families. Among her clients, she has witnessed skyrocketing levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other diet-related health problems. As a whole, native Hawaiians suffer dramatically higher rates of diet-related disease than their white neighbors. And it is striking indeed,

In her ongoing efforts to get her clients to eat a more healthy diet, she says that the younger people are the biggest challenge. They’ve been raised on crappy food, she notes, and asking people, especially younger generations, to change what they’ve always eaten, is no easy task. “That’s the only personal decision some of them choose to make,” she notes. “’How do you get them to choose that without forcing them?”
In other words, how do you nudge – not mandate change, but arrange clear choices and alternatives? That was the main question put on the table at the IFC planning meeting at KEY in early April. Attended by nursing students, farmers, health professionals, and community organizers, the meeting channeled a wide array of perspectives from a diverse group of concerned community members who had gathered to plan a community screening of the film that will be held on June 1 during the community center’s monthly food giveaway in an effort to discuss prevalent food security concerns and health consequences, and to urge and advocate for paths to greater self-sufficiency and determination. When KEY was founded 40 years ago, it was intended to serve the largely agrarian community living there. In the years since, the agrarian lifestyle has succumbed to powerful real estate development forces, and significantly impacted how residents here provide for themselves. KEY still functions as a community gathering place, service center, and source of information exchange. In the large room next door to our meeting, young girls stood in lines learning traditional hula dances, their parents beaming from the sidelines.
In describing the community his organization serves, KEY executive director John Reppun wrote: “We are seeing a generation of farmers/fisher-folk passing, leaving families who are working several jobs or not at all, on welfare, becoming renters versus land-owners because of rising costs they face.”
The handful of farmers in attendance included Emaleti Suguturaga, a very tall effervescent native Hawaiian woman who, following the meeting, proudly toured me around her impressive aquaculture farm down the street from KEY. A mother of four, she started her backyard farm after the death of her husband and following the completion of an inspiring permaculture class. Her operation now includes greens and tomatoes, all grown in water beds that are fertilized by fish in a nearby tank. In a neighboring plot, she tends grass-fed livestock.
Many of the farmers at the meeting felt a strong mandate to educate other community members who would come to the screening about steps, even small ones, to begin sourcing locally, regaining an understanding of traditional foods and preparations, growing a little of their own food, and giving more consideration to the true costs of their food choices and the health repercussions of those choices.
At one point during the discussion, John Reppun’s brother, Charlie, a local farmer, spoke out against the increasingly large portion sizes at fast food restaurants in the community: “There’s no such thing as a small coke anymore,” he said. “The other day I ordered a coke and they said there was no small.”
To this, his brother John asked: “You went to McDonalds?”

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