The Importance of Listening in Food Security Activism

August 15, 2016

Written By: Teleah Slater, Thomas W. Haas Bridgeport Food Access Fellow

Although issues of food security have always existed in the United States, the more recent obesity trend has brought more attention to the issue, particularly with urban food deserts. And rightfully so, it is difficult to think of a wealthy and food plentiful country like the U.S. having food barren neighborhoods, especially since it has long since been connected to excess weight. As a result, there have been several initiatives, from Michelle Obama’s policy pushes to non-profit interventions, to try and improve the struggle their residents have to get healthy food. These efforts often entail opening farmers markets and grocery stores across the country, after all, if the issue is that people don’t have healthy food because they don’t have grocery stores, then the solution must be to open more stores. Unfortunately, some of these efforts fail and their diversity in scale, population, and activities make it difficult to access what is actually successful and therefore should be replicated. Through the research I have conducted for my fellowship, I have come to realize the effectiveness of food justice programs is dependent upon their understanding of the communities they serve. 

The typical food landscape in a food desert. Source: Food is Power 

Like many social issues, food insecurity has a lot of its basis in poverty, as income is a major indicator of accessibility and availability of food. There is extensive evidence that shows the relationship between income and hunger, particularly in urban environments (Rose 517).  Poverty is not the only indicator of food security. Although impoverished households are more likely to be food insecure, half of food insecure households live above the poverty line (Rose 518). Experts and studies point to other economic factors for this phenomenon, as “… households above the poverty level, 37.5% of the food insufficient had lost food stamps, lost a job and/or gained a household member in the previous 8 months…” (Rose 518). While economics does play a big part in food security, research suggests that social factors, such as the loss of food stamp benefits and employment also impact food security. But even beyond that, other social factors also impact food insecurity, namely the accessibility of food. 

Out of this issue, many communities impacted have proactively risen to meet the challenges of ending food insecurity, forming or joining organizations or coalitions. Some are a part bigger health initiatives with more funding, some are smaller and more grassroots and community empowerment oriented, and some are simply concerned with policy change. Their variety and expanse of activity makes it difficult to assess success, and to that end extract beneficial strategies for replication. But of the few recognized by external sources as “successful”, they do all have a commonality, listening and understanding the communities they are supposed to serve.

One such organization is Local Matters, a nonprofit food advocacy group in Columbus, Ohio. Started in 2002, Local Matters now is involved with alleviating many different food inequality issues including “educating about local foods, nutrition, cooking and growing food, increasing access to fresh and local foods and connecting individuals and groups to resources, and engaging with the community in partnerships and collaboration to create sustainable, long-lasting change” (Local Matters). They offer a variety of programs, from school-based nutrition classes, to culturally and economically sensitive and yet healthy cooking classes, to providing an avenue to which local farmers can market and sell their products. It is not unlike many other food justice programs with its activities, but they were particularly impactful as they continually received volunteers from the communities they serve.

Local Matter's Logo Source: Local Matters 

An article in the Mother Earth News magazine attributed their success to their listening to the needs, suggestions, and desires of their community and following their recommendations despite their original plans (Shaw 61). Their article by Mary Lou Shaw, which describes Local Foods as “matured to address all aspects of the Columbus food system. It considers the community's talents, assets, dreams and needs, and helps to implement the best food system projects” (Shaw 62). It goes further detailing how their original initiative, the “Veggie Van”, where affordable and fresh produce could be bought, but received a poor response because the community was more concerned about economic development and education. Local Matters then changed their initiative and started using the small stores present in the neighborhood to distribute the produce including one shop that helps support nutrition programs at local schools. The residents see this as a much better program, as the stores get more support, and they get more access to fresh food.

Local Matters was a great example for me to keep in mind while doing my fellowship. Particularly if you are coming in from the outside like I was to try and help a community, it is important to always listen to the concerns and voices of the people, rather than personal opinions and ideas. The importance of listening is a critical lesson for anyone who has interest in food justice work. 

Madi Wierzel and Teleah Slater, the food access fellows, in front of their project, The East End Pop-Up Market Source: Teleah Slater


Works Cited

Rose, Donald. "Economic Determinants and Dietary Consequences of Food Insecurity in the United States." Journal of Nutrition 129 (1999): 517-20. Print.

Shaw, Mary Lou. "Building Community Food Security." Mother Earth News 245 (2011): 58-64. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

"What We Do." What We Do. Local Matters. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

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