To increase agricultural wealth, give the federal farm subsidies to hungry people and expand who qualifies for SNAP. We know giving the money to conglomerate farms producing corn and soy does not help as much as giving power of choice and purse to citizens to support their local farm and consumable crop growers. Make food a reimbursable expense for healthcare. Food as preventative medicine must be a first line of defense. Teach plant forward cooking and gardening to kids.
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 V. Spehar.
V Spehar serves as Executive Director of Impact for Everything Food and its new initiative, FoodFarmacy, which combines Spehar’s passions for women’s leadership, health, nutrition, and supply chain management. FoodFarmacy is a HIPAA compliant platform that aggregates medical billing codes and grant opportunities with patients experiencing diet related illness or food insecurity. Prioritizing the build of micro-supply chains bespoke to each community that FoodFarmacy serves, the program aims to put control of the food supply back in the hands of local chefs, farmers, and food justice advocates.
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?
In 6th grade my school installed a Snapple machine. It was 1.25 dollars for a bottle, and in the early 90s JUST before brand name clothing and sneakers for kids would become an identifier of class and wealth — there was this Snapple machine. Immediately it was clear whose parents had Snapple money and who’s didn’t. This same year the school decided to allow parents to pre-pay for lunch tickets instead of sending their kids to school with cash each day, paid tickets were red — and the free lunch kids had blue. At this moment I gained consciousness of food equity disparagement. I started a recycling club to collect snapple bottles and turn them in for cash. The club was lauded as “good kids who care about the environment” — but my underlying mission was two fold. One, use my “good kid clout” with the administration to petition to eliminate the color ticket system for lunch — and two, raise money for blue ticket kids to get Snapple too. It was the start of my “use one problem to solve another” journey into food equity building programs. As an adult recognizing the amount of people experiencing hunger, and the amount of fresh food going uneaten I developed harvestRX a produce delivery service nested within the “ugly produce” startup Hungry Harvest that used a portion of the profits from our consumer product to fund food equity for chronically ill patients who did not have access to fresh food. The success of that project has evolved into a new venture I’ve co-created at Everything Food called FoodFarmacy, a HIPAA compliant software designed to manage food as medicine programs and simplify chronic care management.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My grandmother lived in a nursing home for the last few years of her life. A really nice one! But the food was terrible, so she would call me or my Dad to run her up fresh tomatoes, greens, and other produce she could eat raw or heat up in a microwave. Well, that evolved into her running a sort of black market for fresh food at the facility — and we were packing and delivering hundreds of pounds a month. I figured if this is happening to my grandma, it’s happening to other people’s grandmas. I began working with the DC Center on Aging to provide fresh eat raw or easily microwave produce as well as healthy prepared meals to folks aging at home. It was a great success health wise, but my favorite metric was that the benefactors reported feeling more “joy” and “hopefulness” in waking up each morning. That meant a lot to me.
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?
When I realized that there isn’t a silver bullet for huge problems. It can be emotionally exhausting as an empathetic person to work in a care industry. When I accepted that I will not see the eradication of hunger, food inequity and chronic illness due to diet in my lifetime, but that I could be part of a larger community that would continue to value the work and make a difference for as many people as possible today — I was able to maintain focus and feel less alone. Feeling alone, or even “thrivers guilt” is an unspoken obstacle we deal with, and need to have more conversation around. It’s ok to thrive while you help others on their way from survival to steadiness.
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?
So many. Women, Black Women especially. Women of color are the root, trunk, branch and leaf tip of the entire food and care system. Listening to and centering Black women’s advice is the fastest and most efficient way to affect societal equity. Go to Dr. Jessica B. Harris or Leah Pennimen to understand the root of food and agriculture, Davita Davison for best practices in entrepreneurship and community building the trunk, Ianne Fields Stewart the founder of the Okra Project for advice on branching into marginalized communities with authenticity, Alexis Nicole Nelson who is literally teaching you how to eat the leaf, education in foraging, youth engagement, and sustainability and ending waste.
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?
I’m a good listener, and listen deeply to not just what’s said — but what it means. Adaptable, the things we think today may not fly tomorrow — there is no “set it and forget it” to food equity. Curious, I like thinking about this stuff… I like learning and talking and reflecting and talking some more — visiting other countries and states to see how they’re doing stuff, learning about how there are food equity solutions in other industries, and how we can consolidate best practices and resources to exact some sustainable change, write better policy, and build better communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
We’ll try again tomorrow. I like the idea that even if something doesn’t work out today, there’s always another chance to try again tomorrow. I learned this in the restaurant industry where you’re really only as good as your last service, at least, to the papers and customers. You can have a nightmare shift, and then… the next morning — nail it. I like that idea of always being able to try again.
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 Desert is a divisive term. On one hand yes, it evokes a certain imagery that allows the person learning to “picture” a place with no food. On the other hand, that image is deeply flawed. Food Deserts aren’t these off the beaten path places, they are urban, suburban and yes rural but not “deserted”. It can mean there is only shelf stable food, the issue being the sugar and sodium levels that cause chronic illness and a host of other issues. It can be that there is food, but you can’t access it because of financial reasons. It’s a flawed term. It make people think it’s some exotic far off place, the food desert! It’s closer to each of us than we’d like to admit. You could very well be eating a sandwich reading this article while sitting in your neighbor’s “food desert’’ right now.
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?
”They don’t call it hangry for nothing”.. Is something the folks I worked with in Baltimore used to say. Hunger, malnutrition, food insecurity exacerbates issues of domestic violence, infant mortality, homelessness, unemployment, crime and a host of other reactions to the deep void that is hunger. Those reactions drive out business, and hope — further diminishing resources and “the ability to achieve a feeling of hopefulness” that thriving communities need.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Ignorance. Not, being dumb to the issue -but ignoring it. The privatization of our food supply chain drove small local farms out of business as conglomerate super centers contributed to suburban comfort. As folks in the suburbs aged out of being able to drive or work, the cost and lack of social program support drove up hunger and as noted above hunger drives up crime, unemployment, desperation and loneliness. People tend to think of “the most hungry person” when they picture hunger, they don’t think of the suburban 8th grader who is splitting a sandwich with his mom, or the working parent who’s skipping meals to make sure their kid has enough to develop properly. They have some food, just not enough. They don’t think of the elderly and the lack of social services to maintain the life they could when they were working. Veterans with PTSD so severe that simple things like visiting a grocery store or cooking a meal are impossible. We don’t like to think of these things, because they feel too close to us — and the average person doesn’t want to think “it could happen to them”.
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?
Like I said above, there is no “silver bullet”. The charities and not for profits do a ton of valuable work, but so often are burdened by the expectations of donors and reporting required that not nearly enough of the money raised goes to the folks they’re trying to help. Taking feelings and the fact that we should do the right thing out of it, someone is paying the bills. The charities are great at fundraising and organizing volunteers. Where we excel as an LLC is sales. What could we sell to a buyer that would prove to be a remarkable return on their investment. How about, preventative medicine. The fact that this product can reduce your expenses, cost to care for chronically ill folks, and improve your health equity scores enough that you keep your top ten hospitals in the nation accreditation. You’d buy that right?
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
What I like about our work is that I don’t have to live in the feelings to advance the cause. The emotional labor that the not for profits have to give to elicit emotion from donors to feed other people in a vulnerable position exceeds my abilities. I like that this product can work from a logical technically perspective to lighten the emotional labor required by all people in the system. To the hospital top brass, the line item of food as medicine provides a robust return on investment, the administrators have a software that consolidates the amount of conversation required to execute distribution of foods to people, the enrollment process is empowering to the benefactor because they don’t have to “proove how desperate their situation is to qualify for help”, plus it’s anonymous. Dignity restored, delivered to your home, a service not a hand out.
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.
Recognize what food insecurity ACTUALLY looks like, and who it affects. People working full time still experience food insecurity and food inequity. There are different levels to food inequity, and each requires different solutions. The donations/soup kitchen/food pantry model can not be a dumping ground for almost expired food in return for a tax write off to the processed food maker. To increase agricultural wealth, give the federal farm subsidies to hungry people and expand who qualifies for SNAP. We know giving the money to conglomerate farms producing corn and soy does not help as much as giving power of choice and purse to citizens to support their local farm and consumable crop growers. Make food a reimbursable expense for healthcare. Food as preventative medicine must be a first line of defense. Teach plant forward cooking and gardening to kids.
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 love what EveryTable is doing with the fresh healthy “fast food” franchise and meal delivery model they’ve built in California, Imperfect & Hungry Harvest are doing great work with monetizing the seconds market to ensure farmers are getting a more fair rate for their total harvest yield and connecting that food to consumers, 40 Acres & a Mule as well as the Black Farmers coalition are doing incredible work to put farms back into the hands of Black families who grow consumable crops. They’re a major company but I am always in awe of what Chobani is doing to build food entrepreneur equity.
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?
Redirecting USDA subsidies to SNAP recipients, the elderly, and expanding who qualifies for these programs. Allowing home delivery and online payment for EBT/WIC. Free school lunch for all children starting in pre-k through graduation. Re-funding home economics and high school culinary programs. Enforcing proper tax collection and capping shareholder profits in the food supply chain. Looking at solutions to affect positive change for not just the most disadvantaged people but bettering wealth distribution to build a stronger middle class.
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 can not speak enough on the importance of putting money in peoples hands and trusting them to buy, cook, and enjoy the culturally relevant foods they wish to consume. When given abundance people live richly and healthfully — You notice this when someone gets a little money, they maybe go on a little spree of treats — when people attain wealth, they invest in organic healthy food a personal trainer, they invest in rest and reflection — the more people we can elevate to live in even a simple but sustainable and steady abundance the more health we will see in this nation.
That and limiting the amount of advertising processed food companies can do. We are bombarded by processed food marketing not just in what to buy but hand in hand with the pharmaceutical industry who’s pushing drugs that negate the illness processed food causes.
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. 🙂
MacKenzie Scott? Haha can we get a little brunch on the books? I’ll cook. I think she is a unique person in that she’s experienced what incredible wealth can do, and what it never could buy. I think of all the philanthropists out there right now, and people who “use their powers for good” she’s in a unique point in her life where she seems to have achieved a level of consciousness that would be interesting to collaborate with.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Well you can follow EverythingFood & FoodFarmacy at everythingfood.com, I post articles frequently on the work we and other folks are doing and general musings on what’s happening now as well as the history of food. For more on the days current events told to you in a gentle way from a safe space you can follow @underthedesknews on TikTok and Instagram.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.