Bloomberg Cities’ communities come together to fight hunger

El Paso Garden Grant Program members.

The holiday season is traditionally a time to be thankful for the abundance in our lives and to give generously to those who are less fortunate. But problems like hunger are not seasonal, which is why many cities around the world are finding new ways tackle the issue year-round.

Sometimes all it takes to help combat hunger is to just connect the dots. That’s how 2013 Mayors Challenge winner Santa Monica, Calif., is bridging the gap between its low-income residents and the healthy produce at local farmers markets.

The city’s Wellbeing Project gave city leaders a baseline understanding of residents’ health and happiness across many metrics. As part of this work, the city discovered that the neighborhood with the lowest consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables was also the area with the lowest average income. Additionally, they learned that only one quarter of 12,000 residents eligible for CalFresh (the state’s food stamp program) were enrolled — even though the assistance doubled when spent at a farmer’s market, thanks to the federal Market Match program.

So, city leaders set out to raise resident awareness of the CalFresh and Market Match program. Since launching their promotion in 2015, Santa Monica has seen enrollment in CalFresh jump and the rate of redemption of food assistance vouchers at farmers’ markets increase continuously every month.

“Our farmers market is so popular with people from outside Santa Monica that it wasn’t as local as it should have been,” said Lisa Parson, Project Manager for the Wellbeing Project. “We wanted to make what was a supposed to be a community asset into a real community asset.”

When use of the local foodbanks and soup kitchens more than doubled in Plymouth, UK, the city stepped up, helping increase residents’ access to healthy food, in part, by teaching them how to cook.

“There’s a lack of cooking skills for some in our community from a very young age,” said Darin Halifax, Senior Policy Advisor at the Plymouth City Council and Chief Service Officer. “If your mum and dad didn’t have these skills, then you likely won’t, either.”

With the support of Cities of Service, Plymouth created the Grow, Share, Cook program, which works with volunteers to both grow produce and deliver it to families in need for a year and then provide cookware and cooking classes as well. “It’s been remarkable. Food is such a common language. Not only are participants getting more skills, but they are getting to talk to people that they might never have spoken to,” Halifax said. “We have families cooking together, and some people are leaving their housing for the first time in years to attend these classes.”

Now in its fourth year, Grow, Share, Cook has supported more than 150 families with free fruit and vegetables annually, and 85 percent of past participants report that they are still buying fresh produce even after completing the program.

El Paso, Texas, got its start as an agricultural community, but fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard for some residents to come by these days. Approximately twenty percent of El Paso County residents live in what are known as “food deserts”, places that lack access to healthy and affordable food. Many residents face health challenges as well: 67 percent are either overweight or obese.

To tackle both of these challenges at once, Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program member El Paso launched a Garden Grant program for organizations and schools to start seven community gardens throughout the city. Most of the funding goes toward purchasing supplies, while volunteers are integral to everything from the application phase to building and maintaining the gardens.

“We believe that supporting community gardens is a great grassroots way to help people get their hands dirty and reinvigorate our small-scale agriculture production,” said Lauren Baldwin, El Paso’s sustainability coordinator. “Through these small interventions we hope to help grow (pun intended) more farmers and increase the amount of healthy food consumed, especially by food-insecure residents.”

Although the program is only in its first year, Baldwin is already excited about the galvanizing impact that the program has had on the community. “This has been a wonderful way of letting the community take the lead,” she says. “Plus, we’re now tracking which community gardens are out there and connecting them to each other and to resources that they didn’t know existed.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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