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Missouri Food Coalitions Digging Up Deep Roots Of Food Insecurity

Michael Cannon
Flickr -- Creative Commons
Not enough fruits and vegetables are available for everyone in the United States to eat the USDA's required amount.

If every American followed the USDA's dietary recommendations — two and a half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit — demand would far exceed supply.

"It's difficult to grow fruits and vegetables, which are considered specialty crops under federal law, and which receive far fewer supports," says Beth Low-Smith, vice president of policy for KC Healthy Kids and director of the Greater KC Food Policy Coalition.

Credit KC Healthy Kids
Beth Low-Smith, vice president of policy for KC Healthy Kids and director of the Greater KC Food Policy Coalition.

A federal farm bill that's renewed every five years encourages production of commodity crops like corn and soy. Farmers who grow those crops attempt to maximize production, using chemicals and growing processes that negatively affect the environment.

Those crops make up the bulk of what animals and many humans consume — think snack food, cereal and anything processed.

Low-Smith's organizations in Kansas City and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in St. Louis are concerned about what these farming practices mean for Missourians, especially those who are food insecure.

It's not just that the United States has elevated the production of corn and soy over that of fruits and vegetables. It's also a matter of the impact current farming trends have on the environment.

Melissa Vatterott, food and farm director of  the Missouri Coalition of the Environment, says that the way our food is grown impacts our water quality and our air quality. Vatterott is working on policies surrounding urban farming and community gardens that will ensure people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can access healthy, affordable food.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is about to roll out a program called Known and Grown STL in St. Louis. It will focus on marketing environmentally responsible farmers so that the public will know where and how to buy the best available fresh foods in their area.

Good, fresh food means little to no chemicals and livestock fed through rotational grazing for optimal soil, animal and meat eaters’ health.

Vatterott says best growing practices protect the environment for "good soil health and good water quality, which is important for ensuring good food access for all of us long term. We can't eat if we don't have a good environment."

Credit Melissa Vatterott
Melissa Vatterott working out urban farming policy with Erica Williams, executive director of A Red Circle and chair of the MOCAN Food Systems work group.

Kansas City already has a program like Know and Grow STL called Kansas City Food Circle, which lists 91 farms surrounding the Kansas City Metro on both sides of the state line.

Both cities have burgeoning urban farming and community garden programs, which is particularly important for people who are "food insecure" and can't obtain nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food due to their location or income.

Low-Smith says the price of food as a portion of household income has been in decline for decades. It's not the cost of the food that's the issue, she says, it's wage stagnation.

"The issue is poverty. Food insecurity reflects inequalities in our food system and in our society as a whole," Low-Smith says. 

Many areas that are considered food deserts  are also home to vacant lots that can be repurposed as urban farms if city codes allow it and residents are willing to work with programs like Cultivate KC and KC Grow.

"Think about what the real price of your food is to your own health and the health of the environment," Low-Smith says. "When you choose to buy fresh whole foods that are grown in ways that support your health and environmental health, they also support a thriving community."

Correction: The caption for the photo above misidentified Erica Williams, executive director of A Red Circle and chair of the MOKAN Food Systems work group. It has been corrected.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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