Editor’s note: This story is part two of a three-part series that takes you inside the inspiring world of San Diego’s food nonprofits. The remaining story will appear in the September-October issue. While we could not mention every organization in the series, our website features a directory of local food nonprofits.
Unlike many pressing social issues—homelessness, poverty, and addiction, to name a few—hunger is an invisible ailment. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that one in six San Diegans lacks access to healthy food.
As San Diego County's economy pursues globally competitive companies, contracts, and jobs, income inequality grows. One local result is food insecurity.
“The biggest barrier to healthy, nutritious food is affordability,” says Anahid Brakke, executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition. “San Diego County is an expensive place to live, and wages in local service and blue collar industries aren’t keeping pace with rising rents.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Couched in this definition is the issue of food access: how people are—or are not—able to access healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate nourishment.
For those people experiencing food insecurity, local nonprofits have stepped in with solutions.
While charitable food banks are the most familiar to many, they’re not alone in combating hunger in the region. We spoke to three organizations that work to improve food access—and dismantle the barriers that prevent it.
The Corner Store
In a food desert, there’s not a lack of food; there’s a lack of access to healthy food. Corner stores and fast food restaurants offer a wealth of convenient, processed, packaged meals but few fresh fruits and vegetables.
There are a variety of reasons why corner and liquor stores don’t offer fresh fruits and vegetables, including redlining and affordability.
BrightSide Produce was founded to serve as a fresh produce distributor for these community stores. The organization currently partners with 12 stores in National City, including two in a food desert.
“The stumbling block preventing supermarket chains from moving into low-income and underserved areas is profit,” says Iana Castro, director of BrightSide Produce. “The only way to improve food access and what is offered in these communities is to work with the community stores that are already serving the community.”
BrightSide isn’t just about distributing fresh fruits and vegetables. As a student-driven venture, it works to improve the food system by bridging communities. Through engagement with students, corner stores, and residents, BrightSide “brings about social change that is attainable, sustainable, and scalable.”
Tending the Neighborhood
Project New Village’s work begins with a vision of what is possible. "We make a concentrated effort to disrupt the current way people in the neighborhood access food,” says Diane Moss, managing director of Project New Village.
Based in southeastern San Diego, an area low on healthy food options, Project New Village plants new ideas and aims to grow a stronger local food network.
The organization changes the way people eat through programs that change perspectives: community gardens that invite participation and the only farmers’ market in southeastern San Diego, which provides much-needed fresh produce and serves to reframe residents’ ideas about where their food comes from.
Project New Village’s work is collaborative, and the organization views its neighbors and neighborhoods as assets in improving the neighborhood-based food supply chain.
In a racially just society, universal access to good food is the goal; however, the reality is that we don’t have equitable starting points, and institutional racism is accumulated disadvantage over time. So putting a market in a neighborhood, for example, isn’t a fix for food justice. Creating policies and actions that boost community control are part of the solution.
Feeding Hearts, Bodies, and Minds
Our third food access nonprofit leader has changed the regional food system by redefining relationships and definitions. Mama’s Kitchen was founded in the early days of the AIDS epidemic to provide nutrition to HIV patients.
Since then, the organization has delivered millions of healthy meals and expanded its mission to serve San Diegans whose vulnerability to hunger is due to illness.
Mama’s Kitchen’s core service is nutritious, home-delivered meals. The organization also runs a walk-in pantry and nutrition education services.
In recent years Mama’s Kitchen has advocated for the necessity of good food in medical treatment, piloting a program to treat congestive heart failure patients with meals tailored to their condition.
"This goes beyond food access and insecurity; it's about treating food as medicine,” says Alberto Cortés, executive director.
Cortés says that income isn’t the only reason San Diegans are food insecure. Communities that lack access to food often lack access to educational nutrition services.
He also notes the connection between hunger and shame, which can prevent people from seeking assistance.
“What that one-in-six number tells you,” he says, referring to the proportion of hungry San Diegans, “is that long before people are going to be homeless, they're going to be hungry.”
Like BrightSide Produce and Project New Village, Mama’s Kitchen seeks to treat the invisible faces of hunger by making local, nutritious food available to all San Diegans—no matter what barriers they might face.
One thing that’s clear when it comes to shockingly high numbers of our neighbors experiencing food insecurity is that challenges are multifaceted. Nonprofits step into the gap, creating, disrupting, and changing our food system to improve well-being for more people—a goal we can all stand behind.