The fruited plain. Amber waves of grain. Curbside pickup, Michelin-starred meal kits, and Instacart. Inalienable rights at our fingertips. Sure, if you’re not lying awake at night deciding, with what little money is left, to buy food or pay the rent. America’s hunger crisis exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, slamming families from sea to shining sea. National Geographic estimates that in 2020, the pandemic forced an additional 15.2 million Americans, including 6.3 million children, into food insecurity, bringing the total number of our fellow citizens struggling to feed themselves and their families to over 50 million.
But there is hope as individuals and organizations across the country are stepping up, pulling their communities together, and marshalling all available resources to address this painful and shameful issue in our land of plenty. Here are 10 of their inspiring stories.
Seventy-five years ago, Vermont fed New York, Boston, Hartford, and Albany. Trains loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables, pasture-raised livestock, gallons of maple syrup, and the best dairy in the country rolled south. Today, Vermont, with the third oldest state population in the U.S., struggles to feed its own citizens.
“Hunger hides itself well,” says Greg Cox, a long-time activist and farmer. “But at our farmers markets we could often see it in the faces of seniors and young couples. A group of us stopped putting prices out on our stands, and when we saw that individual face of hunger we would price accordingly.”
Understanding that the issue was too big to solve simply through considerate pricing, Greg founded the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) as a non-profit in 2012. While continuing to feed those in need, VFFC’s major endeavor is restoring the local food system’s infrastructure through the redevelopment of a downtown Rutland industrial site. “Local agricultural is an economic and job engine,” says Cox. “Every dollar spent on local food generates another $2.60 for our county’s economy. That adds up to more than $5 million annually in our small county of 63,000 residents—money that creates good jobs and helps alleviate hunger.”
Tianna Kennedy founded The 607 CSA, a food sovereignty project, in the Northern Catskill Mountains of New York to address two pressing issues: the lack of diversity in farming and the fact that one-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over 65, another million are over 55, and many are retiring. It’s a fight to preserve productive farmland in a popular second-home area like the Catskills where selling one’s land for development and making a beeline to Florida is all too attractive.
The good news is that 27 percent of our farmers are much younger and many, like Tianna and her partners in Star Route Farm, are more diverse and new to the business, with 10 or fewer years of experience. “Get big or get out,” says Kennedy, “is a failed agricultural model. We’re trying to change that, leveraging an economy of collaboration through community-supported agricultural (CSA) boxes to financially support newer farmers and preserve the land. Our local and regional food security depends on it. It’s also very important to us to help feed those in need, both here locally and in New York City, through such efforts as The Peoples Peoples Fridge in Harlem and Heart of Dinner in Chinatown.”
In Seattle, Hannah Wilson, the farm manager at Yes Farm, a 1.5-acre urban farm that is part of the Black Farmers Collective, is another young farmer trying to make a difference in her community. “This year will be my first full growing season,” says Wilson. “Last year, we cleared the land and built up the soil. I’ve been so excited going through the seed catalogues, consulting with community elders—both black and indigenous—on what to plant in our herbal medicine garden.”
Adjacent to the I-5 interstate and affordable housing, Yes Farm strives to feed those in need, build community, and encourage Black urban farmers. As an organization, the Black Farmers Collective’s food sovereignty goal zeroes in on the need for a place for African American leadership on the land. Their 4-acre Woodinville teaching farm delivers on that by providing new BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) farmers with access to land and the ability to begin farming with as few systemic and infrastructure barriers as possible.
The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown spurred David Roper, a community organizer, to realize that he had to do something more. Partnering with Jorge Palacios, he co-founded the Green Haven Project, an urban community garden in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. Without a farming or gardening background, Roper immersed himself in YouTube gardening videos until he was confident enough to stick his own hands into the dirt of their 2-acre plot.
“We make our space as safe as possible for the Black and brown children of this community,” says Roper, “a place where they can be themselves. But we also make urban farming look cool in order to successfully teach self-sufficiency. Because if you can’t feed yourself, you can’t effect change.” With 70+ kids participating, David and Jorge lead the effort to plant and harvest as a community and are always on the lookout for volunteers to help improve their urban farm. “If you’re cool, have a pure heart, and have a skill,” says Roper, “we’ll welcome you with open arms. And right now, we’re looking for a very cool beekeeper.”
The Good School Food is at the heart of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF), an educational endeavor that began in 2002 with a 3-acre urban farm. Today the seven teaching farms, embedded in public schools ranging from elementary through high school, connect standards-based content to food, farming, and the culinary arts across all subject areas. “We have a deeper impact,” says Amanda Storey, executive director of JVTF, “when we’re part of the daily lessons and help the students connect and share their knowledge with their communities through the food they grow in student-run markets, year-end farm parties, and cooking demonstrations. Ultimately our success is defined by being a feeder of good people into the community.” Amanda is proud of the fact that currently 25 percent of the paid JVTF staff are graduates of the program and evidence that a food-based educational system that lives and thrives in public schools works.
“The Hawaiian word ‘hui,’” explains Amanda Corby Noguchi, co-founder of Honolulu-based Chef Hui with her husband, renowned chef Mark Noguchi, “means partnership or alliance, as well as to meet and intermingle.” Chef Hui began as a project in 2018 for their company the Pili Group to help culinary professionals better connect with their own communities.
With one out of every five students dependent on school meals when the state closed schools last March, Mark and Amanda knew they had to act. “We were in business within 24 hours,” says Noguchi, “but it quickly became clear, especially as layoffs hit the state’s tourism industry, that the challenge was much bigger than we could handle. We decided to use our ability to raise money to aggregate and distribute food to others across the islands so that they could cook it and share it with their communities.”
This decision has kept 60 restaurants and 40 farmers/producers in business and their staffs employed, as Chef Hui provided the funding and food for these partners to cook and deliver 4,000 family meals and 3,000 senior meals weekly. “This amazing effort involves hundreds of people throughout the state,” says Corby, “including our two young daughters, aged five and seven. I’m convinced they’ll be better people having experienced the joy of knowing and caring for their neighbors.”
Englewood, New Jersey—located just outside of Manhattan—is literally split in two by railroad tracks. “Englewood is by no means a food desert,” says the Reverend Doctor William Allport (aka Father Bill), the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, “however when COVID-19 hit, the known gaps became chasms for many families here in regard to food insecurity.”
When the Center for Food Action was overwhelmed early in the pandemic, Father Bill opened the doors of his church to serve as an ad hoc resource center—advice, food, and even toilet paper when the store shelves were empty. But that wasn’t enough as the pandemic worsened. Marshalling the community’s resources, Father Bill partnered with Family Promise, which engaged with World Central Kitchen to provide daily meals; The Disabled Combat Veterans Youth Programs of Englewood, which helped distribute boxes of food; and other houses of worship willing to serve as pop-up food pantries.
“Our city had an abundance of talent and resources,” says Father Bill. “The key was getting over that pride of ownership that then freed us to break down the silos and get everyone communicating and collaborating more effectively for the good and dignity of our neighbors most in need.”
Food deserts exist throughout America, in both rural and urban areas where residents lack access to affordable and nutritious foods. Northern New Mexico with its isolated small towns and tribal lands is one. “As a food bank,” says Jill Dixon, director of development for Santa Fe–based The Food Depot, “feeding people comes first. In 2020, we distributed 11.5 million pounds of food that resulted in 9.6 million meals, numbers that doubled our 2019 efforts. That increased need is here for at least another 18 months, and our challenge is to meet it without burning out our staff and volunteers—most of whom are seniors—while also limiting any potential exposure to the virus.”
The Food Depot’s mobile food pantry, an effort that launched in 2008, has been key in meeting that challenge as well as providing food to many rural Hispanic and tribal residents in need. During the pandemic, the mobile food pantry has successfully served 17 isolated communities that lacked the money, facilities, or volunteers to run their own food pantries, while also providing the model for three new drive-through pantries in denser population centers.
The Coastal Foodshed began in 2017 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, growing out of the state-wide Mass in Motion initiative to combat obesity by, among other things, making farmers markets and CSA boxes more affordable and accessible. “We started with a program of subsidized CSA boxes to public housing residents,” says Stephanie Perks, co-founder and executive director for Coastal Foodshed. “But when we heard that people wanted more choice, we established the Coastal Foodshed as a non-profit so that we could break away from the government red tape and better fill their request for greater variety.”
With a mission to make it easier for underserved communities to eat healthy local food and simultaneously strengthen the local food system, their Mobile Farm Stand delivers fresh, healthy food to the neighborhoods whose residents do not have easy access to their three farmers markets and helps generate an additional revenue stream for many of the 200 small farms in the area.
Chef Michel Nischan, co-founder and chairman of Wholesome Wave, an organization built to solve nutrition insecurity, has been a leading food policy advocate for 35 years. Wholesome Wave today works with 150 local organizations across the country, bringing program concepts and seed funding. “Currently we are proving the concept of food as medicine,” says Nischan, “We’re supporting farmacy efforts that will hopefully provide us with the data proving that fresh, healthy food prevents certain diseases. We’ll then use that data to advocate for policy changes to allow reimbursable Medicare and Medicaid produce prescriptions written by doctors.”
Nischan and his late cofounder, Gus Schumacher, worked hard for six years before successfully convincing Congress to include the five-year $100-million pilot Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program in the 2014 Farm Bill. The program incentivized the purchase of fruits and vegetables by clients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. In 2018, the FINI program became permanent and was named after Gus Schumacher.
Patience, combined with an urgent persistence, has always defined Nischan. “We all need to understand that a single person, even the President, is unable to effect immediate change,” acknowledges Nischan. “But if we work to not make the perfect the enemy of the good, then we can get to the better.”
You don’t have to get up off the couch to help. Let those fingertips of yours click on one of the links above and make a donation. Better yet, since many of us reading this article inhabit the upward trajectory of the current K-shaped economic recovery, set aside 10 percent of your monthly Whole Foods, Instacart, or e-commerce food splurge and donate it locally. And even better than that, since we’re all about the better me and not the perfect me, get your ass up off that couch and volunteer—your neighbors need you.