When talking about solutions to a better planet and a more sustainable food system, we often hear buzzwords and "silver bullet" solutions. Many argue that organic agriculture will transform the Earth. Others proclaim that advancements in technology are the answer. I believe it is much simpler than that. The truth is, we already have the answers; we just need to listen to one another, come together, and get it done. REAP Food Group, Roots4Change, and UW Campus Food Shed in Madison, Wisconsin, are doing just that.
Over the past year, immigrants and minorities who already were experiencing food insecurity or on the brink of becoming food insecure, were barred from necessary governmental supports during the pandemic. Immigrants recently were denied access to federally funded programs with the implementation of the “public charge” rule. This rule states that visas and green cards can be denied to those who use or may eventually be in need of federally funded services. This caused fear for many immigrants and forced them to struggle through the pandemic without using government supports.
Haley Truan, Farm-to-School and Community Interim Directory at REAP Food Group, explains that they recognized the consequences that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the Latino/Indigenous communities during a Zoom meeting with Roots4Change, a cooperative led by immigrant women. “Ninety-two percent of Latino families with at least one child are food insecure…so many families are on the brink,” Truan said. This plus the implementation of the “charge rule” put Latino communities at immense risk of malnutrition during the pandemic. REAP Food Group and Roots4Change knew that something needed to be done, so they went to the community for answers. Their teamwork and open communication allowed them to come up with a solution that has fed 200 families each week and created several jobs during a time when food access and jobs are increasingly limited.
“It’s mind-blowing that our government didn’t respond to (this) crisis,” Truan said about the food access epidemic among Latino and Indigenous communities. “We have not created a sustainable food system, and it will take community-led initiatives to combat shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change.” Recognizing that something had to be done about this crisis immediately, REAP Food Group and Roots4 Change started the Farms to Families initiative with hopes to alleviate the burden on the Latino and Indigenous community, create new jobs, and support local farmers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roots4Change, being members of the Latino/Indigenous community themselves, wanted to ensure that the recipients got the food and resources that they needed. They asked other members of the community what would be most helpful, and the response was unanimous. “We don’t have a voice,” shared one woman, and many others agreed.
Roots4Change and Reap Food Group needed to make sure that the community they were hoping to help were a part of the conversation.
“We want to help create a better community,” Truan said. This means that the food distributed must be culturally appropriate, ethically sourced, and packaged and delivered by members within the community.
Another group that has historically been more prone to food insecurity is college students, and students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are no exception to this trend. Unfortunately, the pandemic left many students unemployed, hungry, and with little support. While much of the U.S. population received governmental support during the pandemic, most college students were left empty-handed. Many college students were deprived access to the stimulus checks that came from the Cares Act due to being claimed as a dependent and being over the age of 17. Luckily, students at UW-Madison have several resources to help them access healthy and nutritious food, including the UW Campus Food Shed.
The UW Campus Food Shed was started in 2017 by undergraduate Hayden Porter and Professor Irwin Goldman. This student-professor duo realized that so many vegetables used in research projects were being wasted, while at the same time, so many students at the university weren’t getting a balanced diet.
Raven Hall, a senior at UW-Madison and co-president of the UW Campus Food Shed explains why food insecurity on a college campus is such a big deal. “How are we, as future leaders of the world, supposed to reach our academic potential when we’re not receiving the nutrition that we need for brain function?” Hall said.
The pandemic caused even more students to wonder where their next nutritious meal would come from. Consequently, it also posed challenges for the distribution of food. “It’s been hard to get us up and running again," Hall said. She noted that many of the Food Shed’s regular volunteers are now spread throughout the world, taking classes online. Additionally, Hall said, “It’s particularly difficult being a student organization involved in food redistribution, because with COVID, people are being really, really careful and need to be careful about what they’re touching…” She goes on to explain that this has put students in a vulnerable position and has caused the UW Campus Food Shed to find creative solutions.
Hall and others want to unify the food community to raise awareness and tackle problems together. “…how can we connect our resources and actually solve these problems?” Hall said. She explains that there is a disconnect among professors, students, and organizations that are all working on the same issues. “We’re not getting anywhere because everybody is stepping on each other’s toes trying to solve the same problem.” Hall believes this can be solved by creating a space where everyone can come together as a community to enact change.
While Truan and Hall are working to improve different areas of food security in Madison, their approach is the same. Both women understand that the solution to improving our food system is to come together as a community. We are all working on these issues, so why not work on them together?