Grow Your Own: Be the change you want to see. Lead by example and grow some delicious food in the process.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Asha Walker.
Asha Walker is founder and CEO of Health in the Hood, a nonprofit organization she began in 2013 with a mission to provide equal food access for all through urban farming and wellness. Health in the Hood currently operates a network of nine urban farms in food deserts across south Florida, distributing free produce from its farms, providing jobs, teaching nutrition and wellness and creating sustainable local food ecosystems. As an inaugural changemaker for The Missing Ingredients Project by Triscuit, Asha received a 50,000 dollars grant as part of the brand’s 1 million dollars commitment to expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables across the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am a Miami native with a fierce love for my city and deeply believe that eating nutritious food is a basic human right. Wellness has always been a part of my life, and its truly dictated my life trajectory. It’s both my personal and professional mission to connect communities to wellness.
After college, I followed in my family’s footsteps and worked in public service and community development. I worked closely with communities while working with the AmeriCorps service program in Miami. Throughout my 10 years working with the AmeriCorps, I saw an intense need for a systemic change at the local level. On my three-mile drive home, I drove through communities that had access to fresh food and ones that had little to no access to healthy options. This disparity was too glaring to ignore, and I knew urban farming could provide a simple solution to a huge problem. This was the impetus to start Health in the Hood back in 2013.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Community work is filled with interesting experiences! From being surprised with the gift of a beautiful mobile farmer’s market on a television show with millions of viewers, to watching a child harvest their first green beans — the privilege of working in communities comes with life changing experiences almost daily. I’ve had the opportunity to teach hundreds of children the power in growing their own food. One of my greatest joys comes from knowing that kids who’ve grown up with a Health in the Hood garden wellness program in their backyard have a connection to their food sources and understand the benefits of eating fresh, local produce.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Our model is so simple yet so powerful. We’ve truly found success from the installation of our first urban farm and have extrapolated impact benchmarks that we’ve applied to our strategic growth over the last few years. One of our most poignant organizational values is community engagement. It’s at the core of everything we do. Without building strong community roots, it can be difficult to create trust and have a lasting impact. It’s this commitment to working with communities instead of “for them” that we do differently.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband! This man has been my biggest cheerleader and mentor since Health in the Hood’s conceptualization to implementation and now its evolution. From endless strategizing, brainstorming and logistics, he is always there with an idea, or other way to approach a situation. I mean, he watched me rehearse my TEDx Talk no less than 30 times, giving helpful feedback with each iteration. If that’s not dedication to success I don’t know what is. ☺ He’s my best friend and biggest advocate for my mission to connect communities to wellness.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Empathy: Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and find compassion, even if you don’t have a first hand experience of their situation is the most powerful tool one can use to lead.
Organization: Some would definitely argue that I can take this one a bit too far sometimes! But I THRIVE in an organized environment. Color coding, prioritized to-do lists, committing to a routine that serves me — I’m here for it all!
Humility: Leading humbly doesn’t equate to weakness. We have this bizarre obsession with perfection (myself included!) and see vulnerability as a negative attribute. It’s so important to stay open and honest about areas of challenge and growth opportunities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everything in moderation.” My great grandmother instilled this lesson in my mom and it’s shaped just about everything I do. Now that’s not to say that I never indulge! Whether its that last glass of wine I didn’t need, the large fries on cheat day, or on the other end of the spectrum, over training my body, when I don’t practice moderation, its always a great reminder moderation is the baseline for a balanced, happy life.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options, including fresh fruits and vegetables, is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away. In low-income neighborhoods where transportation is limited the problem can be even more challenging. In South Florida, where Health in the Hood operates, there are 326 different food desert neighborhoods alone!
There is a common misconception that hunger and food insecurity are one in the same. This is false. If you are hungry, you do not have access to any food. If you’re food insecure, you are unable to access nutritious food, and instead consume processed food linked to disease and shorter lifespan.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Without access to nearby grocery stores that provide fresh produce, people in food desert communities often turn to unhealthy, processed foods that contribute to food-related health conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and more.
The families we serve in the Greater Miami area live in neighborhoods without grocery stores, subjecting them to consume processed, unhealthy foods that lead to diet related diseases. Many of the individuals served by Health in the Hood programs do not have transportation to get to a grocery store outside of their neighborhood. Participants in our programs have limited to no understanding of nutrition and exercise as a lifestyle practice. Many families we serve utilize government assistance programs including SNAP and WIC benefits. All Health in the Hood program participants live at or below the poverty line.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
There are a host of factors that caused food deserts and barriers to food access. Economic flux and gentrification often times alienate low-income neighborhoods. This leaves people in these communities with limited financial and/or transportation resources, disconnected from grocery stores with fresh food.
In fact, there is also a lack of information across the board (in low income and affluent communities) about healthy, clean eating.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Health in the Hood works to create equitable food access for all though urban farming and wellness. We transform vacant areas in underserved communities into vibrant edible gardens. Health in the Hood works to eliminate food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods that lack access to fresh food by building urban vegetable farms, distributing free healthy food, teaching nutrition, gardening and wellness, and creating sustainable local food ecosystems. All of the produce grown in Health in the Hood gardens is distributed for free to children and families, local food pantries, churches and community centers in food desert neighborhoods.
I am also proud to have been named one of the first changemakers as part of The Missing Ingredients Project by Triscuit, the brand’s purpose-driven effort to provide access to fresh fruits and veggies in food deserts. Through a 50,000 dollars grant from TRISCUIT, we are piloting a new “Garden to Grocer” model that will expand access to fresh produce in more neighborhoods across south Florida.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
There is absolutely nothing better than seeing our families empowered to take ownership of their own health. The gardens instill pride by beautifying and producing valuable product. Seeing the outcomes of this work for our families makes our work not even seem like work.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Access: Access is likely the most obvious barrier facing food deserts. If we can change access, we can transform lives.
- Price: Price is huge barrier for families living in food desert neighborhoods. Even if they can access a grocery store, they are unlikely to be able to afford the premium priced fresh fruits and veggies.
- Knowledge: Even if consumers living in food deserts can access and afford fresh food, there is often a barrier of how to use and prepare these fresh ingredients. If these ingredients have not been a part of individuals’ lives growing up, how can they be expected to know how to prepare and enjoy these foods? This is why at Health in the Good we host Healthy Living Workshops where we use our gardens as living classrooms.
- Change the narrative: We’ve got to start a new conversation around food access and sourcing. We have become so disconnected from where our food comes from. Once we start thinking of vacant land and vertical space, even counter tops, as places to grow our own food, we are literally planting the seeds of change.
- Grow Your Own: Be the change you want to see. Lead by example and grow some delicious food in the process.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
I’m so impressed by Teens for Food Justice, an awesome advocacy and food justice program, and we love the nutrition education programs at Flippany. We also recently discovered a super cool app called Tangelo that connects people to real food.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
To truly move the needle, we must make changes on the policy level. One starting point would be making the urban farming zoning process user friendly for community members.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe food justice is social justice, and food is the great equalizer. This is what the entire ideation, creation and service of Health in the Hood hinges on. Every Health in the Hood team member is deeply passionate about food justice and the role we personally play in connecting people to real food.
I would like to lead a movement to bring Health in the Hood vegetable gardens to every food desert in the country. It is overwhelmingly rewarding to empower people to grow their own food. When we hand a child a tomato seedling for the first time and teach them how to plant it, they are immediately enamored by the process. This moment of connection is what drives us.
Our passion is driven by the simplicity and effectiveness of the mission. By making healthy eating a reality for families in food deserts, we are lifting the veil on the hidden hungry, shining a light on food insecurity, and creating environments that support healthy choices.
One day, I hope this mission will be much larger than myself and Health in the Hood.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to have lunch with Oprah! The depths of her wisdom and authenticity alone would be a life changing experience!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website and social media are great ways to stay in touch with us!
My personal wellness platform www.ashawalker.com is a bridge between Health in the Hood and sharing wellness practices with a broader audience. Here you’ll find wellness tips from mediation to plant-based recipes, gardening tips and even a healthy cocktail recipe or two.
We are very active on social media — please follow us on Instagram and Twitter @HealthInTheHood. You can also learn how to get involved by checking out our website — https://www.healthinthehood.org/.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.