Sustainable food key to health, speakers say

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Photo by YDN.

Grassroots sustainability organizer Karen Washington and chef-turned-businessman Michel Nischan agree: sustainable food supplies should be a right, not a privilege, they said at a talk Monday night.

At the event, held at the Yale School of Management, Washington, a representative of Just Food, and local food advocacy organization Wholesome Wave chief executive Michel Nischan spoke to students about the value of sustainable fresh food in underprivileged areas of the United States. While accessibility and price are big issues, the pair said the most important — and difficult — problem to overcome was getting community members involved personally in urban food issues.

“[The question is], how do we get back to the communities where everyone knows each other, where everyone is sharing recipes?” Nishan asked.

Washington opened the evening noting that she did not have a “green thumb” as a child. She said she had not intended to enter the sustainable foods movement. After moving to the Bronx following her graduation from Hunter College in New York City, she intended to become a physical therapist. But the health problems in her neighborhood caught her eye from the start, she said. Diabetes and hunger were rampant, and conditions were so poor that, Washington said, people tended to associate her neighborhood with garbage.

More significant to Washington was the fact that no one seemed to be doing anything about it, she said.

Washington formed a coalition of concerned citizens and took the matter to city hall. Before long, she said, her efforts attracted enough attention that the city gave her funding to develop a community-owned “urban farm,” a plot of developed agricultural land in the middle of the Bronx that could be used to grow fresh food and which would be sustained entirely by the neighborhood for years to come.

“Things you’d typically see in a compost heap were sold in my neighborhood at a reduced price,” Washington said.

She said that through this initiative the neighborhood has been working to reverse the healthcare problems that were so prevalent before their efforts.

Central to the community’s success, Washington said, has been ensuring that residents feel the farm is their own, rather than something owned by an outside person. Once the neighborhood and its residents developed a personal connection to the land, they were much more eager to sustain it for the future, she said.

Nischan, a two-time James Beard Award-winning chef — the awards were dubbed the “Oscars of the food world” by Time Magazine —, pioneered his organization, Wholesome Wave, in a similar vein. Growing up, he said he rarely had access to fresh foods. After discovering and honing his skills as a chef, it became Nischan’s goal to pioneer a movement of fresh produce in American eateries, he said.

But his goals changed when his son, Chris, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Rather than bringing fresh foods to the highest-level consumers in his restaurants, Nischan focused instead on overcoming social stigmas and helping sustainable foods develop in urban areas.

“The fix is simple,” Nischan said, “but the societal issues around it are complicated.”

Initially, Nischan said he thought the main problem with healthy eating in poverty-stricken areas was affordability: if people cannot afford locally-grown whole foods, then they will eat junk food, he said. But he soon found, just as Washington also discovered, that the main draw of urban farming was the supporting roles it allowed community members to play. He founded the Wholesome Wave Corporation on the premise that involvement, not accessibility or price, is the key to sustaining the production of healthy and fresh foods for underprivileged areas in the future.

Audience members said they liked how the two speakers offered varying viewpoints on the issue of sustainability.

“I really, really enjoyed [the talk],” Cara Mae Cirignano GRD ’13 said. “It was a very good balance. Karen … provided a very grassroots level view, and [Michel] is obviously working at a more macro scale, organizing food systems and political movements. Both were powerful. They complemented each other.”

8.3 percent of the US population suffers from diabetes, the primary cause of which is a buildup of unused carbohydrates and the body’s inability to process them.

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