Community Action Coalition.

In a public health class I took over the spring semester, we frequently discussed disparities in public health as a product of social inequalities.  Rather than blame people for the seemingly poor choices they were making, we did something called contextualizing risks and looked at what caused these individual behaviors.  As you likely know, there is an association between poor health and low-income communities.  This has more to do with affordability, stress and access than poor choices.  A problem that arose consistently throughout the semester was that of obesity in low-income communities.

As someone who focuses on consuming fresh fruits and vegetables more than any other food group on a day-to-day basis, it is easy to patronize a parent who nourishes their children regularly at McDonald’s.  But it was eye-opening for me to be reminded that $6 worth of double cheeseburgers (6 sandwiches) fills a stomach up better than $6 worth of produce.

The quality of the fast food pales in comparison to much fresher options, but quality is a luxury many cannot afford.  When parents are struggling to meet basic needs, $2 per pound apples or $4 per pint strawberries simply doesn’t seem like an option.  Similarly, parents who work two jobs to make ends meet see microwave dinners and fast food as a convenience they are fortunate to be able to afford.

And sadly, these decisions parents make for their children today affect the tastes their children will acquire in the future.

Luckily, we live in a progressive, socially conscious city.  Not only is Madison at the forefront of the sustainable and local food movement, it also has an abundance of community organizations who naturally think about the causes of the causes of poor health and how to eradicate them.

One such organization is the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Inc (also known as CAC).  Though the services they offer are expansive, what interested one student in my class was their focus on community gardens and food security.

CAC works with the food pantry networks in Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha counties to help provide perishable (fruits and vegetables!) and non-perishable food items as well as technical assistance.  Through generous funding, various outreach services and workshops, CAC is also imperative to the community garden movement in Madison.  And even more interesting, is their innovative Gleaners Program that brings the two together.

Since 1992, CAC Gleaners have safely recovered perfectly good food from restaurants, grocers, bakeries, caterers and many of the community gardens they helped to establish.

Because of CAC, the presence of fresh produce in food pantries is not unheard of, but as my classmate Nick Lois discovered through his final service learning project, food pantry attendees were not always interested in much of this produce.  The fruits and vegetables were often unfamiliar and residents didn’t know how to use them.

Always interested in food, health and social justice, Nick began volunteering for food pantries three years ago.  This class opened his eyes to the causes of the causes of poor health.  And as he discovered through his volunteering as well as this class, the lack of healthy choices being made were not only due to access and affordability, knowledge was a significant barrier as well.

This again opened my eyes to why it is easy for me to make healthy decisions.  I have a computer and internet access pretty much whenever I need them.  When I decided to start gardening and eating more fruits and vegetables, all the answers were literally at my fingertips.  When I didn’t know how to pick a ripe avocado, I looked it up online.  When I didn’t know what to do with the abundant and cheap spring asparagus, I checked my favorite cooking blog.  The answers were easy for me to find especially when the majority of my friends share a passion for both growing and cooking food.

But what if you brought home a bunch of radishes and hated the taste?  What if no one you knew had ever happily eaten radishes, and therefore had no advice to share.  It seems unlikely you’d ever want to try them again, especially when more convenient, readily-delicious foods are stacked right beside them.

Nick quickly realized that education was just as important as providing the fresh produce, so he created several informational cards (which he ironically named Harvest Handouts) to distribute with the fresh produce.  These handouts contained all the necessary information for learning to love unfamiliar foods: how to select them, how to store them, and several basic recipes on how to prepare them both raw and cooked.

By working with CAC, these handouts will begin to be distributed to the food pantries with fresh produce and changed seasonally.  It seems like a small gesture, but it is likely to make a large difference.

Sometimes I get frustrated with this sustainable, local food movement because I wonder if it is elitist.  If everyone with their backyard gardens and heirloom tomatoes are merely trying to one up their equally conscientious neighbors next-door?

And then I look towards CAC and Nick Lois and the noble work they’re doing.

I realize that yes, I, like many Madisonians, am privileged to be able to put a raised bed behind my house and grow some minute portion of my own food, but that isn’t what matters.  The people I see involved in community gardens and enthusiastic about the possibility of connecting with their food, are the same people willing to try and extend this movement to everyone.

We may silently compete for the prettiest garden or the biggest tomatoes, but in the end, this movement is about including everyone and giving everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy what we ourselves enjoy.  And that’s just beautiful.