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VOL. 45 | NO. 18 | Friday, April 30, 2021

From local farms to many tables

Nashville Food Project volunteers work to feed a vulnerable city

By Catherine Mayhew

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Eric Wooldridge, a manager at Bells Bend Farms in the Scottsboro/Bells Bend community, plants spinach throughout the fall and winter season. Several varieties – arrowhead leaf and savoy – do particularly well and remain tender and sweet during the cold months.

Wooldridge and his helpers harvest the crop by hand, picking the largest outer leaves and letting the smaller inner leaves grow.

Two large bags of the winter/spring mix sat in a no-contact pickup shed on this early March day as David Frease pulled up to the farm in a Nashville Food Project truck to pick up the spinach and a healthy radish harvest. The procurement manager for the nonprofit picks up donated produce and other ingredients from a number of sources and delivers them back to the Food Project kitchens where the magic happens.

Chef director Bianca Morton and her staff transform healthy vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins into delectable meals any restaurant would be proud to serve. Instead, these meals go to nourish the hungry and food insecure.

In 2020, The Nashville Food Project served more than 200,000 meals at 77 meal partner sites. Some of the food goes to communities they have served for a decade. Others are recent additions, the unfamiliar faces of the newly hungry.

“The demographics for people who were food insecure dramatically shifted and changed,” Morton says. “People coming up driving a nice car that you wouldn’t expect to be food insecure. They’ve never signed up for food stamps. They’ve never gotten a food box. They’d never heard of Second Harvest.”

The spinach from Bells Bend Farms would, in a matter of a day, be transformed into a nutritious casserole for those navigating the rocky road of hunger.

Next meal, unknown

Food insecurity – hunger – is the inability to get food reliably.

“People who are unable to afford to feed their families,” says David Padgett, Ph.D., an associate professor of geography at Tennessee State University who has spent years mapping the food deserts of Nashville. “Hunger is the simple term. The more academic term is food insecurity. It’s all the same thing. Hunger, inability to afford food or get to where food is – all fall under the same umbrella.”

The United States Department of Agriculture found that nationally more than 35 million people struggled with food insecurity in 2019.

Hispanic and Black households are disproportionately affected. The USDA reports 19.1% of Black households and 15.6% of Hispanic households were food insecure in 2019, while 7.9% of white households experienced hunger.

The pandemic blew those numbers up, although no one knows by exactly how much. “Food insecurity statistics are always a few years behind,” says Grace Briggs, the director of food access for The Food Project.

But anecdotally, the long lines at food banks nationwide told the story, as did the increase of prepared meals shared with the hungry. Data from the USDA shows 10.5% of households in the United States suffered food insecurity at some point in 2019. Researchers from Northwestern University have projected the number would more than double to 23% in 2020.

Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs nationwide, provided 4.2 billion meals March-October 2020 and experienced a 60% average increase in food bank use. Almost half the recipients were new.

In Tennessee, Feeding America estimated that food insecurity was 18-20% last year, an increase from 12% in 2018. Add to that the disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic households affected by hunger – and the rise in childhood food insecurity with free lunches during school closures – and many Tennesseans were in crisis.

That was nothing new and the causes were decades old.

Systemic racism

Padgett shopped at the Monroe Street Kroger for two decades. Originally located inside the old Farmers’ Market, it was a basic store when compared to Kroger stores in more affluent locations.

“There was no organic food selection in the old Kroger. No fresh seafood or meat section. It was much more heavy on processed foods.”

When the old Farmers’ Market made way for the current, updated version, the old Kroger nearly went away. Residents in the then-predominantly Black neighborhood lobbied to keep the grocery store. They won, and the grocery relocated nearby.

Vensive Lamb, left, receives his meal from Hal May, a volunteer driver with FiftyForward.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

And then adjacent Germantown began to gentrify. Most of the established residents were renters. As their leases expired, developers bought up the properties and replaced the old homes with modern – and expensive – alternatives.

The formerly Black neighborhood gradually changed, and so did the Kroger.

“It remained the old Kroger for quite some time,” Padgett recalls. “But as the community began to gentrify, people made demands of that Kroger. Well-heeled residents would not tolerate bad conditions. People who were used to being oppressed would be less likely to say anything.”

When Kroger finally remodeled the store to meet the demands of their new customers, everything changed. The now Germantown Kroger has a plentiful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables (including organic), an abundance of fresh meat and seafood and a spacious bakery, among other amenities.

It looks, in short, like a Kroger in Brentwood or Green Hills. It looks like a store serving the now 72% of the population that is white.

Food insecurity is directly linked to systemic racism.

“The racist history of housing and residential real estate development in the United States has fed directly into food deserts and urban food insecurity,” Padgett explains. The practice of redlining – the once-legal system in which people in predominantly Black neighborhoods were denied home loans to either buy or renovate properties – led to a wealth gap that persists to this day. Bankers would literally draw red lines around areas in a city where the residents were deemed more likely to default on a mortgage.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination based on race for renters or homebuyers and it made it illegal to charge predatory interest rates.

“There’s a well-documented history of where African American neighborhoods were redlined and, as a result, they ended up being less desirable neighborhoods,” Padgett says. “Then there’s the phenomenon of white flight. Because of racism, white flight ensured that the amenities such as grocery stores left the communities with the white-flight movement.

Here come the food deserts.

Generally speaking, there are three major food deserts in Nashville – North Nashville, East Nashville and Edgehill. All are areas with predominantly or significantly Black or Hispanic residents. What a food desert means in practical terms is people have no grocery stores nearby and limited access to transportation that could get them to a supermarket.

USDA data found that about 39 million people lived in “low-income and low-access areas” to food in 2015.

During normal times living in a food desert means if you have access to food it’s generally fast food restaurants and convenience stores with processed offerings that are higher in salt, sugar and fat. And that contributes to higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

And if you happen to be in a food desert that does boast a traditional grocery store, it most likely will have fewer selections of a lower quality.

The pandemic made matters worse. Public transportation curtailed routes, what grocery stores there are shortened their hours, mobile delivery services didn’t reach all locations, and some don’t accept food stamps.

Many children lost school lunches when in-person learning ceased. Food prices increased. In April 2020, the price of groceries grew 2.6% – the largest month-to-month hike since 1974, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Egg prices went up more than 16%.

Food insecurity wasn’t about to go away, but at least the pandemic provided a bandage.

Back In the kitchen

After the arrowhead leaf and savoy spinach from Bells Bend Farms arrived at The Nashville Food Project’s main kitchen, it went straight into a spacious walk-in cooler to be stored while chef director Morton decided what to do with it.

During the Before Time, Morton had a capable kitchen staff and scores of volunteers who could wash and process the ingredients needed for each dish. Now the volunteers are gone due to the suspension of the program and the staff was skeletal.

“We’re kind of isolated,” Morton says. “We don’t have the support we were accustomed to using, like the staff that was on-site didn’t have a lot of culinary background. We had to do a big shuffle. And it’s more work involved with all the COVID restrictions and parameters.

FiftyFoward’s Hal May is one of many volunteer drivers who deliver meals to families and individuals in need.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“People started asking for individually packaged meals and family meals. People eating from big pans communally was null and void. The time we would take to make an entrée and get it panned up in two hours now takes us about four.”

The spinach would go into a Creamy Marinara Baked Pasta, along with whole wheat penne donated from a food drive by Harpeth Hall, a marinara sauce made in the kitchen from fresh tomatoes and Parmesan cheese from the food bank at the sister kitchen at St. Luke’s Community Center.

The next day it was delivered to some of The Food Project’s partners, including FiftyForward, seven YMCA food sites and Preston Taylor Ministries.

“The most unique need in some of these groups is just having a complete meal,” Morton explains. “With schools being closed, families are suffering because they have to decide do I send my kids to school or quit my job? For those kids, getting complete meals at school was the only time they had food to eat.”

The offerings from The Nashville Food Project are closer to restaurant-caliber food and the recipients notice the quality.

“Mostly, they’re grateful,” Morton adds. “Also, it’s better than they expected, especially if they haven’t had any introduction to the Food Project. We’ve heard they’re pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meals they’re receiving.”

Farm to table

The spinach picked just days before is now waiting, tucked into the creamy casserole, to become someone’s dinner. The recipients span generations.

On the upper end of the spectrum, the elderly clients at FiftyForward were already at risk of isolation before the pandemic. Now, with communal activities on hold, they were largely confined to their own homes.

“Because of the (lockdown) orders, as an active aging center we had to say how can we serve people who can no longer walk through the doors?’’ asks Sharie Loik Goodman, the FiftyForward Fresh/Meals on Wheels director. “We hit the ground running with virtual programs, helping them get on technology but we also did a really grassroots thing that we continue to do – wellness calls. We check in with our center members on how they’re doing.”

And suddenly it was no longer possible for clients to pick up meals at a community center.

“When you’re serving older adults who are not able to prepare food like they used to, you have to serve them in a more personal and specific way,” she says. “Our secret sauce has been easy-to-prepare, shelf-stable items and then this food that is so nutritious from The Nashville Food Project.”

She remembers the Creamy Marinara Baked Pasta coming through the door in individual containers.

“I saw it on the menu and I’ve seen that come through,” she says. “I look in the containers almost every day. I want to see it. It’s comforting to me. We have a delivery menu so we can see what day we’re serving what.

“Clients say it’s so exciting to see what they’re going to get. It’s like a surprise package every day getting a healthy meal.”

On the other end of the spectrum are the children served by Preston Taylor Ministries. The nonprofit serves about 400 children in West and North Nashville with an after-school program that includes mentoring, building joy-filled friendships and improving self-image.

When the pandemic hit, they had to make a difficult choice.

“When the March shutdown hit, with the mayor’s orders, we knew we could serve in one of two capacities,” says Lisa Lentz, the director of connectedness. “We could serve as a child care facility or a food distribution facility. That was the way we could stay open. We chose food distribution for a number of reasons. So much of the ways food distribution folks work is using us as their end point. For us to close would shut off that channel to operate. We not only serve the child but we serve the whole family.”

Preston Taylor delivered food from the Food Project to families along with educational materials for the kids who were learning at home. “We had buses, volunteers and addresses,” Lentz says. “We knew where these families in need lived. We could lay other services on top of that like reading packets or social and emotional activities and ways for other services to literally be laid on top of that food.”

And in one of those silver linings that came with the pandemic, the nonprofit decided to turn unused classrooms into temporary grocery stores. Clients could pick up much-needed necessities such as shelf-stable food, paper products and cleaning supplies.

The pandemic added to food insecurity but the underlying causes of race and poverty are as pressing as ever.

“COVID brought out food needs, but it (food insecurity) had always been there,” FiftyForward’s Goodman says. “It intensified with COVID. I have a sign in my office - “hope changes everything” - and I believe that food has always been a relationship building tool throughout all history and in many cultures.”

And back at the Food Project kitchen, where the spinach arrived to be transformed into a nutritious meal, Morton has cause for optimism.

“I am amazed at the Nashville community,” she says. “We’ve had more food drives than we’ve ever had. We’ve had more people bring donations who never heard of us before. I think it has given people who would not normally be exposed to us a very good picture. I’ve seen these great gains in figuring out better ways to support each other.

“You can see a little sunshine at the end of the rainbow.”

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