Increase access to local agriculture. There are numerous examples of successful community gardens. Community gardens and farm-to-school initiatives can reduce food insecurity by increasing healthy food access for children and adults within the neighborhood. In addition, food share programs across the U.S. provide reduced price healthy fresh produce using EBT-SNAP and cash. Local volunteers and civic leaders will box and distribute produce boxes at local hubs for low-income consumers. City-operated gleaning programs harvest food from local farms, fruit trees, community gardens, local institutions and restaurants to ensure no food is wasted. Gleaned food is then donated to those in need.

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 Leslie Hossfeld.

Leslie Hossfeld is a professor of Sociology and Dean of the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Clemson University. Dr. Hossfeld is a rural sociologist whose research expertise is in community and economic development, agrarianism, food environment, food sovereignty and food security, and rural health disparities. She has made more than 150 research presentations in various national and international conferences in addition to over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, books, book chapters, technical reports, whitepapers and research briefs.

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?

Evidently, I have always loved teaching. One of the first birthday gifts I remember receiving as a child was a big chalkboard to play teacher. I would set up a classroom and hold forth; my little brother, my cats, my dolls — anything in reach would be part of my classroom. When my brother first went to preschool, the teacher asked my mother if she knew he could already read. My mother was shocked because she had no idea! I often reflect on what a saint he was to sit through all those sessions I held teaching the alphabet and phonics to him and my toys. So, I guess teaching has been something I have been passionate about for a long time and it led me to my career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2002, I was teaching at a university in a part of the country experiencing unprecedented job loss. During the semester, I was giving a lecture on economic restructuring and job loss. While explaining to the class what happens when work disappears, I noticed a real shift in energy. One hand went up, then another, and I realized a good portion of the students were displaced textile manufacturing workers who were themselves experiencing precisely what I was describing. It seemed an appropriate time for me to keep quiet and learn from those who were experiencing this firsthand. It was an eye-opener.

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?

For me, the tipping point was probably the example of learning from displaced workers in my class on what happens when work disappears. From that, a long-term, multi-sector project developed from the economic disruption in the region. This one county lost over 10,000 manufacturing jobs and the ripple effect — the multiplier effect — when that many jobs disappear is significant.

Intuitively, we knew what was happening, but we didn’t know empirically what was going on, so we needed to research and document the experiences. I put together a team, research design and protocol and began collecting in-depth interviews and county-level data while documenting what happens to communities when work disappears. We then formed a public-private partnership of about 70 individuals, which became the Jobs for the Future Project.

Working closely with our congressman, we organized a congressional briefing. A group of approximately 400 people, including residents, administrators, elected officials, displaced workers, students and faculty researchers boarded donated buses from the university and drove to Washington, D.C., to share our findings with the Congressional Rural Caucus.

I began the briefing by sharing findings from our research. Displaced workers brought the data to life by sharing their stories. Elected officials described diminished services, high unemployment and crime. We also shared policy recommendations. Though it took several years, components of our policy recommendations were implemented at various levels. And while we were proud of the trip’s success, we knew the work ahead was significant and much more needed to be done.

In many ways, this was the tipping point for all my future work in rural economic recovery. I learned communities come together in remarkable ways across sectors and social backgrounds. When that sort of momentum occurs, so much can be done. I learned key skills and understandings of how to work in and with communities, and I also witnessed the power of research in documenting and informing community change.

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 entire family is my mainstay. I simply could not have achieved an ounce of what I have achieved without their continuous support.

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, tenacity and humility — each of these seem to overlap and help create good leaders.

Empathy allows us to stand in others’ shoes and is at the forefront of my work. Having empathy and compassion for people and communities is so important, as is recognizing my experience is just one of many.

Tenacity is central to getting things done. Having resolve and steadfastness over the long haul is vital to doing good community work. There are so many unknown variables in this work, so being tenacious and focused on an end goal is necessary, especially when twists and turns inevitably occur.

Humility is also central to doing good community work. I try to keep in mind what I bring to a project is just that: a single skill set, vantage point or worldview. There are so many other talented individuals, and we can learn from one another if we keep this at the forefront of our work. Being self-effacing and recognizing there are many “truths” in a community is vital to the success of any project. Many voices and many vantage points are needed to get work done.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everyone makes mistakes… but it’s what you learn from your mistakes that matter.” Learning from your own mistakes and those of others is such an important life lesson. This also helps when coupled with empathy and humility, recognizing we all make mistakes — we are human. Moving forward is much easier and productive if we strive to do our best and learn from what we have done wrong.

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?

Like many topics, this one is particularly complex and should really be discussed in the context of hunger and food security. Around 1990, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began measuring household food security, a concept centered on understanding whether households have enough consistent food to live a healthy, active life. Thus, food-insecure households have difficulty and ambiguity in meeting these basic food needs. The development of this measure stemmed from a 1984 U.S. Presidential Task Force on Food Assistance that drew attention to the lack of a good measure of hunger. USDA has refined the measure over the years to capture the range of severity of food-insecure households and their relationship to hunger. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of access to enough food at all times for all members of the household to be healthy and active. The official measure of food insecurity in the United States is established through the Current Population Survey’s Food Security Supplement that has a variety of questions ranging from a level of concern over food running out to how long they might have gone without eating over the course of a year. Food insecurity is often associated with living in a food desert. The 2008 Farm Bill included language that defined a food desert as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities”.

So, yes, there are many places in the United States where you cannot buy healthy food. This can be in the middle of a city or a remote rural area. The USDA Food Atlas provides mapping of the food environment and visually shows food deserts in the U.S. — this is a great resource for anyone trying to understand the problem better.

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?

Food deserts can lead to higher rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases. Food deserts provide a good gauge of areas where food insecurity is more likely to occur. These areas are primarily in lower-income communities, disproportionately populated by African Americans, Hispanics and other marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Research tells us that these households have higher health care costs — up to 50% higher — with an increased likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and higher blood pressure, and health problems associated with low access to healthy food.

This creates an interesting paradox because one might wonder why poverty leads to a high obesity rate instead of a population that is underweight and malnourished. Indeed, when we think about poverty and hunger in developing nations, we think immediately about children who are thin and underweight. Yet, increasingly, the problem in the United States in terms of health has to do with food and the food environment in which people live. Foods that are often cheaper, more plentiful and easier to access often have little-to-no nutritional value and are high in calories and fat. Malnutrition in the United States is not an issue of being underweight; it manifests itself more as not eating enough of the right food. When viewed in this way, it is easier to see how poverty can be associated with obesity and malnutrition.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

Again, this is a very complex issue. It has a lot to do with the changes in food production in the U.S. over the years, especially since World War II. To summarize a very complicated story that I and many others have written about extensively — many technological and societal changes occurred to meet the increased needs of families, a growing population and a shift from small farms to large-scale agricultural operations. Since the 1940s, there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of small family farms, once the mainstay of the country’s food production, to a sharp increase in commodity production — soy and corn — together with an increase in large-scale agricultural production.

Government subsidies have driven down the costs of commodities such as corn and soybean. Add to this the introduction of fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils into the American diet. These products make the costs of snacks, soda, candy and fats very inexpensive. At the same time, few subsidies support the costs of fruits and vegetables, and we have seen a very noticeable increase in their price.

The U.S. has also experienced significant changes in household food production needs and changes in food production knowledge, including a desire for more “convenience” foods and less food preparation in the kitchen. If you go to any store with food, you will see it is easier and cheaper to buy “junk food,” which is low in nutritional value, very low cost, and long shelf-life food. Add to this an increase in women’s labor force participation outside the home since the 1970s, changing gender roles and expectations within household labor. All of this combined reflects a significant transformation in U.S. food production and consumption. This period is known as the nutrition transition in the U.S.

A Center for Disease Control (CDC) report found American adults were 24 pounds heavier in 2004 than in 1960. As the production of cheap, high-fat, high-caloric food has increased since the 1940s, obesity rates for American adults have climbed sharply. Also, if you look at high-poverty counties and neighborhoods in the U.S. and overlay these with obesity rates, a striking pattern appears: the higher the poverty, the higher the obesity rate. The CDC lists 644 counties in 15 states as the “Diabetes Belt,” where people who live in these areas are more likely to have Type 2 diabetes.

There exist clear diet-related health disparities associated with both the nutrition transition and the existence of food deserts. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) focus on the effects of the nutrition transition on health outcomes and how those are now a significant public health problem. The United Nations’ global research agenda for food calls for a revival of local food systems.

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?

I have had the pleasure of working for years with communities in different parts of the South to address persistent problems around healthy food access. Fortunately, there are many examples of communities working toward improving health and nutrition and the revival of local food systems. One project I was honored and fortunate to work on was the North Bolivar Good Food Revolution project of the Delta Fresh Food Initiative (DFFI) in the Mississippi Delta. This multi-sector collaboration focused on economic development and improved health outcomes for residents.

Three neighboring communities — Mound Bayou, Shelby, and Winstonville — in high poverty food deserts in rural Mississippi organized to address healthy food access by training youth ambassadors from the community to become growers and managers of a mobile food market that provides healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables to over 5,000 residents in the county. In the beginning, 23 young residents were trained to collect data to identify needs, healthy food access and availability through a household survey they disseminated.

Findings from the survey indicated 88% would support a mobile market providing local produce. Based on these findings, local growers worked closely with the youth ambassadors to develop good agricultural growing practices. A community member worked with them to sell the produce through the mobile market they developed. Cooking and nutrition classes are also conducted in partnership with community and church partners, and a local advisory board ensures local leadership and input as well as community commitment as the project grows and expands.

I’m proud to say that after four seasons, the project is still growing. It’s a great example of communities coming together to address key concerns of health and healthy food access by training youth as ambassadors of an equitable, local food system.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

The two I have discussed earlier are the ones I am most proud of and most uplifting–giving testimony to Congress with community support and the Delta Fresh Food Initiative. These are powerful examples of how communities come together to make a difference.

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.

Because of the complexity of food access and food insecurity, this is not an easy answer. Many changes are needed within a given food insecure community to make a difference. For example, rural communities with little-to-no infrastructure have overwhelming challenges and would be affected differently than urban centers. Communities with lower population densities will likely require different planning strategies than higher population density areas due to differences in food site location, public transportation and access. Limited employment potential, low wages and housing costs are additional barriers that food-insecure households experience.

Here are a few ways that civic leaders can and have worked to address access to healthy food. Implementing at least one of these initiatives at the local level will benefit any food insecure community.

  1. Increase transportation opportunities for healthy food access — Transportation to healthy food retail sites or emergency food sites is one of the most significant barriers to accessing healthy foods for urban and rural residents alike. Organizing bus routes to ensure residents can easily get to grocery stores in a reasonable amount of time can make a major difference in communities. Other examples include developing mobile markets in food desert areas, much like the Delta Fresh Food Initiative example.
  2. Increase access to local agriculture. There are numerous examples of successful community gardens. Community gardens and farm-to-school initiatives can reduce food insecurity by increasing healthy food access for children and adults within the neighborhood. In addition, food share programs across the U.S. provide reduced price healthy fresh produce using EBT-SNAP and cash. Local volunteers and civic leaders will box and distribute produce boxes at local hubs for low-income consumers. City-operated gleaning programs harvest food from local farms, fruit trees, community gardens, local institutions and restaurants to ensure no food is wasted. Gleaned food is then donated to those in need. (USDN Toolkit)
  3. Develop Healthy Corner Store initiatives. There are several examples of bipartisan state and local legislation that increase healthy food options for food desert residents. These include accessing healthy food at corner and convenience stores and SNAP retailers and ensuring local farmers and growers are connected to the healthy corner store. Legislative funding for Healthy Corner Store initiatives ensures that local produce is featured and accessible at the endorsed retail site. EBT-SNAP double buck programs for corner stores and farmers’ markets are other ways to increase healthy food purchases.
  4. Develop local food-focused advisory bodies. Municipal departments of food, local and regional food policy councils, food coalitions, and food committees are examples of advisory bodies with subcommittees that provide food policy initiatives to local and regional governments. This provides a structural mechanism to develop a local food system that ensures healthy food access to all by creating a county-funded municipal department of food that operates much like a parks and recreation or waste management department. This department should then incorporate subcommittees that advise on specific aspects of the food system, such as the emergency food system and local agriculture.
  5. Embrace food systems entrepreneurialism. Food systems entrepreneurialism is a concept that provides local producers with a market to sell their product so that the consumer and the producer benefit. Examples of food systems entrepreneurialism can include food hubs with online farmers’ markets. These are typically a coalition of local producers who are centrally organized and can distribute their produce to the public, either with a physical or online marketplace. The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) works to encourage food systems entrepreneurism with the aim of economic development through local foods. When these organizations focus on food insecure and food desert areas, such as Feast Down East in Wilmington, North Carolina, the populations in these areas can benefit.

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?

Dr. Samina Raja at the University of Buffalo is someone I admire considerably. She is an urban planner by training and is the director of the University of Buffalo Food Systems Planning and Health Communities Lab. Dr. Raja frames her work around the question: “Why do we plan places as if people don’t eat?” This simple question always strikes me as such a transformative approach — when we ignore this question, it is not surprising that food insecurity and food deserts exist. Dr. Raja trains a cadre of students focused on urban and regional planning that puts community food systems and access to healthy food at the center of its work. Her work with communities on food sovereignty projects and food equity is pioneering.

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?

There are two programs I’d like to see expanded. The first is the highly successful federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which keeps people food secure and out of poverty. SNAP helps local economies through an economic multiplier effect in that every 5 dollars spent in SNAP generates close to 10 dollars in economic activity. Expanding SNAP would lift more people out of poverty while ensuring people in the U.S. do not go hungry.

The second program I’d like to see expanded is Food Corps. It is an AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to American federal program placing service volunteers in partner schools across the nation to work with children and communities to learn how to grow healthy food and healthy children. The impact Food Corps service members have on their communities is impressive and since they target young children, the long-term influence on attitudes towards healthy foods will be felt for many years.

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.

For a long time, I have been perplexed by the divide between U.S. health policy and agriculture policy. The disconnect between agriculture policy, nutrition, health policy, food access and food insecurity has led to serious health inequities and disparities. Aligning health and agriculture policy is one of the most important steps we can take in becoming a healthier nation across all social classes.

In 1965, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, opened the first Federally Qualified Community Health Center. The center was one of the first in the nation to implement a Healthy Food Rx Program in which fresh fruits and vegetables were prescribed to patients to provide healthy food access and promote food as medicine. The center was the focal point for community organization around the need to address the social determinants of health and poverty.

Reviving this idea from 1965 is exactly what I think we need to be doing. There are several great Healthy Rx programs and Food as Medicine programs today, but we need more. We are beginning this work at Clemson University through our Clemson Rural Health program using mobile health vans to reach rural underserved communities. We are also working to implement a type of Healthy Rx program in which we have local fresh produce on the mobile vans and outside clinics. This program will supplement the clinical care our nurses and nutritionists provide while being available to patients to improve diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases through the promotion of healthy eating.

Connecting health policy to agriculture policy would take a movement: a collective will to ensure the Farm Bill and health policies are better aligned. Accessing healthy, affordable food should not be a challenge. A culture change around food — whether it’s knowledge, environment, production or consumption — and improved health outcomes would bring the most good to the most people. Building healthy communities benefits everyone.

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 have always admired Graca Machel. Her humanitarian work throughout Southern Africa and through the United Nations is impressive and longstanding. It would be a true honor to meet her and learn about the remarkable work she has done and continues to do to improve the lives of everyone.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.