A movement grows to address Riley County’s broken local food system.
Photos By: David Mayes
On a cool Sunday afternoon in June, a woman leans into her chair along the back of the broad, white porch of her daughter’s rental house. We’ll call her Barbara Fletcher due to the nature of this article. Her hands fold across the lap of her blue, floral dress. She recently returned from work and appears tired but relaxed, her bare feet crossed in front of her. Several chairs circle communally in the left corner of the porch, facing one another with a wooden table and ash tray in the middle. A pleasant chime dangles from the porch ceiling, now and then tinkling gently in the breeze. The summer sun sprinkles beneath the cottonwood and oak trees lining the downtown street.
After raising her children into adulthood, Fletcher is in her mid-50s, working a few hours a week at a downtown restaurant to help with family household expenses, but fights a chronic illness she cannot treat without health insurance. Despite nearing the age of retirement, Fletcher is nowhere near that freedom. “On paper, I’m homeless,” she says into the distance without flinching. “This is my daughter’s house. I’ve been here a few months since I got evicted from my apartment. With my medical condition, I couldn’t work enough to pay rent.”
For the last several years since returning to the area to be closer to family, Fletcher says she has been visiting Flint Hills Breadbasket a few times a month for her personal groceries. Without the Breadbasket, she would not have food at all, she says. “I don’t qualify for SNAP because I have to prove I am homeless or claim the income of the entire household where I stay now, even though they aren’t all my immediate family.”
Fletcher’s story is not unique but rather illustrates the dire picture of Riley County’s struggle with food insecurity, defined by the USDA as the percentage of people whose “consistent access to adequate food is limited by lack of money or other resources during the year.” In 2014, the food insecurity rate for Riley County was 18.5%, higher than the national average of 15.4%. That’s nearly one in every five people without consistent access to food. The federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides disbursements to approximately 3,000 families each month in Riley County, the highest amount in comparison with eight other counties in a central Kansas region.
The financial and social impact of food insecurity is vast, extending beyond the pain of empty refrigerators and stomachs of our community’s residents. Over time, not having consistent access to nutritious foods results in a multitude of health crises, including increased likelihood of diabetes and other chronic health issues, according to the The Journal of Nutrition. It is likely, not coincidental, that in our county with higher than average food insecurity, the rate of uncompensated medical care provided by Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan increases each year, according to Via Christi’s President, Bob Copple, at a recent forum on the state of Riley County’s healthcare system.
For Fletcher, who is uninsured, this has proven true. Without the ability to access medical care and verify her chronic illness, she visits the ER every few weeks to obtain medications to treat pain and allow her to work. She knows she will not be able to pay the medical bills she accrues, however, Fletcher’s lack of insurance makes her one of the many patients Via Christi will treat this year without compensation.
A Broken Food System
Despite the pervasive need for food access in our community, a strange paradox exists at the opposite end of the food system: excess wasted food. Despite the efforts of restaurants and nonprofits to recover or reuse food, Riley County wastes approximately 21,756,380 pounds of food annually, or 60,018 pounds daily, based on the national average reported in a 2011-2015 American Community Survey. The annual cost of wasted food in our community is approximately $27,833,162, again based on the national average. On a smaller scale, a family of four may waste between $1,350 to $2,275 of food annually.
The solution appears simple at first glance: collect the extra food people do not use and give it to people who need it. But the key to solving hunger and reducing the amount and cost of wasted food is complicated by a multi-faceted food system.
According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, a food system is “the path that food travels from field to fork. It includes the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food. A food system operates within and is influenced by social, economic, and natural environments. Each step is also dependent on human resources.”
“We have plenty of food to feed our people here,” says Vickie James, coordinator of the newly appointed Food and Farm Council, a joint city-county effort to address food insecurity in the county. “But it’s complicated because of finances, knowledge, values, and skill sets.”
Although the Riley County food system reliably feeds thousands of people in the community, one in five people still struggle with hunger consistently as wasted food occurs at many places along the food system. The Food and Farm Council hopes to address these disparities between wasted food and food-insecure families in the area, with a goal “to advocate for and sustain an accessible, healthy and local food system” with a vision of “a local food system that supports healthy living in our community.”
When the Council formed in mid-2018, James, a registered dietitian, accepted the opportunity to lead the group. “It’s important to realize the group is the Food and Farm Council of Riley County and Manhattan, Kansas. It is a dual appointment for county and city commissioners. That in itself is innovative because it is not just governmental or grassroots. It’s both working together. The food problem crosses the boundaries of city and county.” James shares one morning over coffee, her eyes behind black, wire-rimmed glasses speaking sincerely. “The goal of the Council is to bring people together for improving communication, collaboration, education and advocacy throughout all the food system sectors. We want to help fill those gaps by working together, involving our entire community in bettering where we live.”
After Vickie and her husband retired to Manhattan, she felt her experience with food systems in communities around the country and her love of Manhattan created an intersection of knowledge and passion that make her the right person for the role. “My background has been community and systems change around the food system. I have worked across Kansas and nationally in facilitation and coordination and served as a resource to help people help themselves.”
Understanding the many stages of the food system, as well as its current process and condition locally, is critical for the Food and Farm Council’s success in reducing wasted food and in meeting the community’s food insecurity needs. Forming partnerships with businesses and organizations all along the food system improves the ability of the city and county to close gaps, meet needs and reduce waste.
“We identified approximately 75 potential partners, but there could be more, and no one is excluded intentionally. We want to know who are the stakeholders in this community food system, and we are doing face-to-face, 60-minute interviews to find out who is doing what work.” A group comprised completely of volunteers, the Food and Farm Council currently meets monthly to share the results of the partner conversations they’ve had during the last month.
A sustainable effort in reducing the statistics of wasted food and hunger require patience and a long-term approach, James says. “It’s complex. “If it wasn’t, we would already be doing it. So we want to be talking about this with people who are already doing the work.”
Fletcher’s Poverty Paradox
Born in Junction City and raised in Manhattan, Fletcher says she didn’t always experience poverty in her childhood. “When I was younger, we were a middle class family. My dad worked hard and put us in Seven Dolors. My sister went to Lucky High.” Fletcher’s struggle with poverty began later in childhood, a shift from a stable home life with her needs provided. “It wasn’t until my parents divorced that we struggled,” she recalls. “I remember the government cheese, a big block like Velveeta.” She held her hands out about 12 inches apart, measuring the size from memory. “I remember the generic black and white can of pressed meat, usually beef or chicken. A lot of us that grew up on the block, around the corner from the Douglas Center. There were a lot of us that had hardships.”
Finding herself homeless and without medical care later in life, Fletcher encounters a strange algorithm of barricades. In order to continue receiving food assistance from the Breadbasket, she uses her last address, but not the address of the house where she stays now. “My daughter makes too much income to qualify for the Breadbasket, but she’s got medical bills too. If I say I stay here now, I will lose my benefits. But if I don’t have them, no one in this house will eat.”
While the food Fletcher brings home from the Breadbasket is the only food the family eats each week, she insists they are well provided-for. “The Breadbasket is well-stocked. I can get everything I need. I’m very grateful for the assistance the Breadbasket has given me over the years.”
Hunger and Waste Linked to Lack of Education
On a warm summer morning, a handful of black and white Jersey cows splash gently through a rain-filled pasture on A&H Farm, just south of Manhattan. The strawberry patch next to the pasture has been mostly picked through by early season berry hunters. “The strawberries were huge this year,” brags Food and Farm Council member, Andrea DeJesus, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Hugo. At the front of the farm, a large pen corrals a variety of eager animals, including two donkeys, a squirming family of pigs and a handful of goats whose bleating sounds alarmingly like crying children.
At the counter inside the farm store, DeJesus talks while collecting stalks of purple asparagus into bunches, securing them with a rubber band in preparation for the Salina Farmer’s Market later that day. A member of the Food and Farm Council, DeJesus is thinking about long-term solutions to the county’s issue of food waste and food insecurity from a farmer’s perspective. In her view, providing the average consumer with knowledge about how to eat and prepare produce is where she wants to start. “Education is very important. Because people think a tomato that has a crack in it is not good to use. Consumers expect perfect produce, and they don’t want it if it’s not perfect. They need to know, ‘I can buy stuff that is cracked, bruised, stuff that needs to be used today or tomorrow.’”
Erin Bishop, director of Cats’ Cupboard, K-State’s on-campus food pantry, agrees that education is a key intersection of reducing waste and hunger. “People need education that ugly produce is still good. Also, people don’t understand ‘best by’ and ‘purchase by’ dates. Many of our students think food is expired and isn’t good anymore, and we try to provide education on that, letting people know food is good after those dates.
In the last two years since it’s opening, Cats’ Cupboard has served 940 individuals with over 6,000 visits. Bishop adds that the role of Cat’s Cupboard goes beyond merely distributing nonperishable food items to K-Staters but also assisting students in making the most of their nutrition. “We are working with Justin Hall to set up teaching and education related to food preparation.” She notes that a customized approach based on the demographic is needed, rather than an assumption of skills or lack thereof. “ I think we do students a disservice when we assume they don’t know how to cut an onion. My students can learn how to do anything on YouTube.”
In her interactions with patrons of a local food pantry, Fletcher believes more hands-on education around preparing, storing and cooking food would help people struggling with food insecurity make their food stretch further, whether they visit a food pantry or not. “I know how to cook,” she announces confidently. “My dad was a cook. My mama was a cook. So I know how to cook. Some weeks, I find a brisket or a filet, and we eat that for dinner. Or I see asparagus, and I think, ‘I’ve been looking for that.’ But a lot of people don’t know how to cook these things, and the food gets left there.”
Fletcher acknowledges a bigger need for mentorship and education beyond food itself, suggesting many people in poverty are like her, struggling but hungry for the education that will allow them to leave behind a life of merely surviving. “If you want to feed the hungry, don’t give them a plate. Give them a fishing rod,” she advises. “People at times need charity, but it doesn’t mean they are born to be charity cases.”
Food Recovery Offers Community Specific Solutions
Every Tuesday night for the last two years, K-State student, Carolyn Osbern, parks her car in the lot of the Vanier Football Complex parking lot and walks toward the loading dock. Osbern is a member of K-State’s chapter of the Food Recovery Network, a small but committed group of students doing the work of food recovery. Foodrescue.net describes food recovery as “the practice of gleaning edible food that would otherwise go to waste from places such as restaurants, grocery stores, produce markets, or dining facilities and distributing it to local emergency food programs.” For these students, their contribution in reducing wasted food is transporting catered food from the Performance Table, a regular student athlete event, to a local church where it will be served during a weekly meal. On Tuesdays, Osbern drives the remaining food to St. Thomas Moore; on Thursdays, the food will arrive at First United Methodist Church downtown.
Food recovery, an ancient practice with a new name, is a crucial piece of reducing hunger and waste in any community. James emphasizes the need for intentional food recovery at every stage of the food system. “At the production or farm level, if strawberries don’t get picked when they need to get picked, and the producers are working with someone who is doing recovery, they can call and have them come glean. This has so many benefits as it supports the producers, gets food in the hands of those who need it, and increases consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
James also wants to promote food recovery at the household level, where people waste more food than they realize but have more control over its use. “For a family, recovery and rescue happens in that household. On a bigger scale with caterers and restaurants, food could get packaged and reused. But if a household buys too much and cannot use it, it goes in the trash.” She adds, “We are educating consumers to make better decisions in their shopping, in their storage at home so it stays fresh, and in simple recipe preparation. We want to give people food skills and confidence, developing their taste for things beyond their usual palette.”
“I spend time talking with other communities similar to ours, but the solution has to be customized,” James says. “Communities that think sustainably create long-term solutions. Having the support of city and county decision makers can lead to, hopefully, a more efficient path for good, healthy change for our food system. It is our way of life, our daily choices, making the healthy choice the easy choice, making access to local, safe, affordable food the norm. We can’t do that all by ourselves. It’s a long-term effort for a healthier community.”
“Everyone is saying, ‘How can I get involved?’
James believes each person has a unique contribution to make in the restoration of the local food system, and she wants anyone who is interested to get involved. “I think the time is right and ripe for this. Everyone is saying, “How can I get involved?” Fletcher’s desire to mentor and teach others about food preparation and storage, for example, reflects the concern many Manhattan residents share about how to engage in the food system in a meaningful way. Yet many are unsure where to begin.
James suggests several ways to get involved, but recommends people start with a conversation. “People can help transport to recover food. We need people to launch a simple website to list regular community meals and how to make donations and develop a food recovery connection hub.” She adds, “We need significant dollars to get this off the ground. We will need to end up with an endowed fund that will allow us to sustain the work. But anyone is welcome to sit down and have coffee with me and talk about how to plug in.”
James shares that this summer, the Food and Farm Council will be engaging residents and partners in the food system through community forums in order to develop Community Action Teams (CATs), able to build plans and take action to address specific food system gaps identified by community members and partners. CAT groups will be led by individual Food and Farm Council members, James says. “We will create partner contracts in which people can donate time, money and other resources to the goals of the groups. For now, people can give us their contact information as a civic organization, business or individual, then we can categorize people who want to do this or that, align that with our resources and needs and mobilize people.”
James’ hope for the future is big, and she does not want to leave anyone out. “Hopefully this mushrooms,” she says of the Food and Farm Council’s forums and partnership conversations. “We want to capacity-build the community. We want to look at the culture of the community to customize what we need to do for ourselves, what a healthy Riley County and Manhattan looks like. But it has to be a systematic approach.”
When Barbara Fletcher cooks dinner for her family, she’s reminded of the years when mealtimes were a celebration rather than a struggle. “I want to prepare a meal for my family. I think about it all day,” she smiles. “All of that is nourishment to me. That’s what my mama did. When you wake up, you’re smelling the meat, but you know that’s not breakfast. That’s dinner, and you’re okay eating an apple and a piece of toast for breakfast. When you come back in for lunch, you’re smelling the greens, and when you get in from playing for the day, you smell the cornbread, and you know it’s time for dinner. We all washed our hands and the neighbors were over and we ate together.” She leans back into her chair again, enjoying the memory. “That’s nourishment.”
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.