Creating an Oasis in a Food Desert

The past year has put us all in physical, mental and social disarray. Maybe most of all it’s put our relationship with food on the front burner of our attention, literally and figuratively. A spontaneous trip to the grocery store or that weekend night out featuring dinner at your favorite restaurant is now looked at with apprehension if not dread. The specter of COVID looms everywhere … and especially when it comes to food.

We’ve hoarded and we’ve expanded our culinary repertoire (too much along the lines of calorie-ridden baked goods). And with our new focus on food – we’ve gain weight. As a college students you became familiar with the “freshman fifteen”. Now we’re all looking at the prospect of the “COVID twenty”, if not more. Whether it be lack of physical activity or the piling on calories because work is now only ten feet from the kitchen and all those cookies that just came out of the oven – the health of too many of us has suffered. Weighing more and being more sedentary … has had adverse effects on our entire being including our state of mind. Depression and mental maladies have skyrocketed among all demographics during the pandemic.

As we hopefully emerge from the COVID crisis; vaccination rates are enabling us to finally leave the house and conduct somewhat of a life like we remember. We are going to have to take our food consumption (and production) less for granted. As the adage goes: “We are what we eat.” But do you really like the new “plus twenty pounds of you”?

Even though we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, however obscured that light may be; the virus may forever be with us like the flu (only much more deadly). Every year comes flu season and a trek to CVS, Walgreens or our doctor’s office to get a flu shot. COVID may very well follow a similar fate. Our adverse reaction to the virus, or any virus, is proportional to the strength of our immune system and state of our physical being. It’s been determined that the COVID virus wrecks the most havoc on those who suffer from diabetes. While occasionally acquired at birth, diabetes is normally of the Type 2 variation – caused mainly from less than optimum behavior such as bad eating habits and sub-par nutrition.

What we put in bodies is ultimately our responsibility. That said, if all that’s available to us is processed or fast food; our attempts at self responsibility will be seriously compromised. If we can’t get the food that’s good for us – we’re going to suffer.

The pandemic has launched a wave of self-improvement programs, especially those with an app attached to it. Armed with our iPhone and a monthly subscription we’re supposed to be able to transform ourselves by unilaterally adopting new physical and nutrition habits that lead us down the road of whole body renewal. If only it was all this easy. Unfortunately any personal unilateral health journey ignores the environment around us, our community and the influences of those who inhabit it. Unless we address the shortcomings of healthy food availability and our dismissive collective attitudes towards it – our health will suffer.

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Food.IQ

We’re all labeled with quotients and computations: intelligence, emotional and so on. There’s even a cynicism quotient attached to Washington and those in Congress. These assessments go beyond us as individuals. There are organizations and NGOs that give numerical assessments to counties (RWJ/University of Wisconsin) and states (United Health) that assess the health of these locales. While these macro computations make interesting water cooler fodder, seldom is there anything implied in them that prompts the development of an action plan for communities to improve their ranking. They leave us with an awareness of the problems – but little else.

To begin our journey to societal well-being we need to break apart these overall assessments into their component parts. From there we can then address these individually by creating action plans for each. While health is a personal issue, our ability to achieve our goals is significantly dependent on where we live, and what is available to us – physically and in terms of social constructs.

This is where our community’s food quotient comes in. The food computation, or as we have branded it, Food.IQ; is the compilation of an array of factors relating to food availability and quality in your community and how it contributes to its collective health. It gives us a starting point to better many of the foundational factors that contribute to our individual health and nutritional habits.

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Constructing The Factors

The Food.IQ is an aggregation of an array of contributing food-related factors specific to your community. Each factor is assigned a weight of 1.0, 075 or .5 (in respective order of importance). These weights reflect how important an element is in a community’s overall food health. The contributing factors range across the spectrum; from supply issues to community attitudes and knowledge level.

A team in your community, assisted by the members of Community 3.0 will grade each factor on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest). Community 3.0 will assist each local community team in grading each factor by providing a guide which provides scenarios that match up with a respective weight. This will provide consistency across the entire network of Nodes (communities). Some factor scores may result in negative grades which are also built in to the aggregated score. The weighted scores of each factor are then added together to determine the community’s Food.IQ (adjusted for 100 being the highest available score).

Below are a list of factors we’ve compiled. This list is still open for debate and we welcome input.

  • Grocery stores per capita
  • Grocery store quality
    • Pick a basket of healthy goods and whether the store carries those (or an equivalent)
    • Include access options(due to social distancing recommendations)
  • Percentage of the community occupying a food desert
  • Availability of food pantries (including operations, accessible location and quality of goods)
  • Plant-based meat availability
    • Grocery stores
    • Restaurants
  • Vegetarian restaurants (number and participation levels)
  • Ethnic food diversity availability
  • Fast food restaurants as a percentage of total
  • Public school food availability (who get receive it and how many times a day)
  • Quality of public school food
  • Public school nutrition instruction
  • Quality of college food
  • College nutrition instruction
  • Hospital food quality
  • Nutritional availability in health care
  • Farmers markets (size and quality)
  • Public gardens (size/participation)
  • Outreach programs (number and participation)
    • Each program may justify a separate score to add into the total

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Building Your Food.IQ Through Front Porches

Scores are nice to look at, but the affecting change to better the numbers, specifically individual factor scores, is the goal.

Each factor will require a different strategy and its change will probably require a different set a players to invoke needed action. That said, we can’t sit back and rely on the the government to make these changes. Remember it’s the government that created the environment that let things get to where they are; and much of the time those we’ve elected have a vested interest in keeping things how they are. What’s needed to truly create positive change are people in the community organizing through what we call Front Porches. Front Porches are normally locally-owned small businesses such as the corner bar and grill where people already congregate and informally discuss the coming and goings of the community. But in the real world of diverse communities and locales, a Front Porch can be just about anywhere.

Growing up in North Dakota, I did what many other kids in North Dakota do during the summer – worked on a farm. It seemed everyone had connections to farming somehow. If I wasn’t golfing with my best friend Jerry, I was at the farm cultivating, picking rock or harvesting.

Late August was the time to bring in the crops, which was always wheat. Wheat was about all that grew on our land. While my dad operated the combine and harvested, I hauled the wheat to the grain elevator in the little town of Alamo (where the farm was at and my grandparents lived). Going to the elevator meant waiting in the lobby for the results of the load. The lobby was decorated with what seemed to be old bus seats repurposed as chairs, and a coffee pot a quarter full of day old coffee (at least). Only the most unsuspecting fool would touch that coffee. There was normally five or six farmers, all in OshKosh overalls – talking and waiting. Being the only teenager, I most often just sat quietly. Nobody much cared what teenagers had to say. However our wheat always had the highest protein levels in the area (giving me credibility); so if I did say something they at least they listened.

But what I do remember was the conversation wasn’t just small talk. These farmers, who were the civic leaders in the small town of Alamo, talked about problems they all faced; and most of all they talked about solutions. And by the time group dispersed, scattering to their respective fields to get the next load … they all seem to have some sort of a task to resolve to whatever problem Alamo was facing. Maybe it was helping out someone or just checking in on them. Regardless, it was normally something.

I imagine Alamo had a formal town council of some sort, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the real work happened there in the grain elevator while we sat on those repurposed bus seats waiting for our protein counts.

Your Front Porch doesn’t have to be a grain elevator with day-old coffee. It can be anywhere where you and your neighbors come together and discuss the comings and going of your community. You don’t have to be politically or socially aligned as long as as you have the same goal of improving where you all live.

Changing the school food menu will probably require the actions of the school board or superintendent – but the conduit to make it happen will ultimately be through the attitudes and activism of the people the community – likely organized in some sort of a Front Porch.

Creating grocery options in food deserts involves motivating private concerns and persuading them that there is a market for them to make money. These private concerns are best based locally as they will understand the issues better. Even a community-owned coop could be organized with ample motivation and sweat equity.

Having sufficient farmers market opportunities requires people to organize and the market the event. This takes a certain skill set from the organizer – including recruiting a team around them to do the plethora of functions required. And aside from the permitting process, farmers markets are normally a private venture.

At the core of any ground level civic change effort is leadership, someone who will rise up lead the charge. These aren’t elected officials; nor is it probably their primary vocation. The volunteer cause is just what they’ve decided to do. These are situational leaders. No one elected these leaders to lead – they just stepped up and performed. And others around them were motivated by them and followed. This is the true prescription for civic engagement; through street-level decentralized ‘problem solving’. The situation dictated that they were needed and they responded. There was no required hierarchy, nothing to inhibit true leaders rising to the top when their skills and drive dictated so. These are just people with a passion and an empathetic vested interest in the missions they chose to pursue.

Finding these situational leaders that will spearhead your effort to build the food capabilities in your community is not easy. It will take a societal attitude where anyone and everyone believes they have a place in the community to contribute – not just vote leaving the execution of the work to someone else; but actually dig down and do it yourself. From this collective attitude of inclusion will come the leaders.

Your Food.IQ score is an excellent tool to use within your community to develop its nutritional foundation. Your community’s score can also be used as a tool to compare itself with its neighboring communities. Think of it like the competition that exists between towns and their high school football or basketball teams. Neighboring communities can have contests, creating friendly wagers among civic and educational leaders. A community’s Food.IQ should illicit a sense a pride … and the motivation to to better it.

A high Food.IQ score can make a community attractive to business interests looking at relocation or expansion, as well as being a favorable factor in attracting talent to the community. Prioritizing food is an indicator of a community’s high regard for its populace’s health and well-being.

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Lend Us A Hand

We welcome you to contribute. Help us make your community and your country healthy through a more comprehensive look at its food and nutritional situation. We want the Food.IQ project to be a collaborative effort – open to anyone and everyone who believes they can add to it. Below are a few ways you can help out.

  • Tell us what contributing factors from the list above (or others that aren’t included) are most important to you.. This will help us adjust the factor weights to better reflect a true healthy community – and breath a little fresh air into our myopic echo chamber.
  • Help us break down what best represents what it takes to have a score attached to a factor (1 through 5). Help us build the ideal narrative around a healthy food ecosystem.
  • Help us organize the a Food.IQ effort in your community. Make contact with the key people that will provide us with the information we need to assess your community’s food acumen. From this information and using the score determination templates – we can compile your Food.IQ score.

Just comment below and we’ll get hold of you.

We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way we’ve always done it.

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