Editorials, Opinion

City says food is a human right. Now make it accessible

At Tuesday’s meeting, Morgantown City Council passed a resolution to recognize “the right to food of all its residents.”

The resolution is a beautiful gesture — but largely symbolic.

As Deputy Mayor Danielle Trumble said, “Attention is a great thing, but the work has to get done.”        

The resolution comes of the heels of a Community Development Block Grant Program (CARES Act funds) awarded to the city for $500,000. Within the resolution is the pledge to “support” access to healthy and affordable food through considerations including, but not limited to, “full-service grocery stores, incorporation of educational components …, nonprofit and coop models for grocery stores, and expansion of community gardens …”

Education is not so much the issue. It’s common knowledge that fruits and veggies are better for you than those crackers or that box of mac and cheese. The problem lies in access and affordability. Knowing how to make healthy choices means nothing if the only store you can get to sells soda and ramen (and the only green thing in sight is the sour cream and onion chips) or your account balance means you can get a week’s worth of less healthy food compared to only two days’ worth of fruits and veggies.

In 2018, the last year for which this data was available, around 25,000 West Virginians lived in food deserts, which the Food Empowerment Project defines as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.” Food deserts also tend to be in low-income areas.

If council wants to put its money where its mouth is, its efforts should be focused on making healthy foods more accessible and more affordable. To do this — and to do it well — it will likely need to partner with the county to serve the people most in need.

Community gardens and nonprofit or co-op grocery stores are the best solutions. Community gardens have the advantage of being hyper-local and possibly the cheapest option. There would be the upfront cost of all the seeds or seedlings, but if the garden is planted on city- (or county-) owned property, there’s no cost for the land, and tending can be done by volunteers. Making it  a greenhouse would mean more money at the outset but also fresh produce year-round.

Ideally, the gardens would be placed in food deserts — neighborhoods and communities where the closest “store” is the gas station or a dollar store. Once the produce is ready, there would be limited cost associated with distributing it. After all, it’s not getting shipped halfway across the U.S. — at most, it might be going across town, but it would be better if people could come pick their own produce or have volunteers deliver to their door.

A co-op or nonprofit grocery store sounds like a good idea, but the logistics are much more complicated. An adjacent solution may be to facilitate partnerships between local farmers or community gardens and the convenience stores that service many of our neighborhoods or communities. With some help, gas stations could be encouraged to carry locally grown produce on their shelves. Or the city/county could help vendors set up stalls near a community’s lone store, so customers can have a one-stop-shopping experience. Some of the grant money may need to be used to offset costs, so produce can stay affordable. Accessibility doesn’t mean much when you still can’t afford the product.

The resolution is a good start. As Trumble said, “This isn’t a solution. This is attention.” Now, it’s time to turn the idea into action. Let’s get to work.