Plastic bags rustle and footsteps pound on the floor on a Sunday morning inside a North County church. Teresa Ramsey and other volunteers from local nonprofit The Fit and Food Connection rush to prepare food for almost 50 families. In each bag, volunteers place a set amount of healthy food products – bunches of kale, cartons of eggs and cans of vegetables – based on the family’s size. Ramsey’s pace quickens, and in a matter of minutes, the bags are transported to the church’s entrance hall, where they await delivery drivers who will take the pantry’s food directly to families in need. After a few minutes, Ramsey loads up her own car with bags to deliver on her own. “I’m here almost every Sunday,” she says. This program is one way that the nonprofit aims to fight against food insecurity in its community.
According to The Fit and Food Connection, access to healthy food is far from a guaranteed resource in St. Louis – as of 2020, more than 200,000 individuals in the metro area are food insecure. On the surface, food deserts might appear to be a reason for this. But in reality, they’re just one symptom of a larger systemic problem that touches public health, housing, crime and racial equity. “The kind of food that folks are able to consistently access is really one of the building blocks of health,” Katie Kaufmann, senior strategist at Missouri Foundation for Health, says. “[Lack of access to healthy food] is a problem that’s been going on for generations.” The historical policies that ultimately led to food insecurity in St. Louis also had enduring racially discriminatory impacts. Today, activists and organizers are using innovative methods to reverse the decades of damage.
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Although it might seem as though food deserts just “exist,” according to Webster University cultural anthropology professor Dr. Jong Bum Kwon, these inequities are anything but happenstance. “People who are a bit more progressive or radical in their political orientation would actually call food deserts more like food apartheid, or an issue of food justice, which is then related to these larger issues around racial justice,” Kwon says. “A lack of affordable and nutritious food is simply one consequence or symptom of a broader system of structural or institutionalized racism. And I think that is actually the more appropriate way to look at it.”
The legacy of past redlining and discriminatory housing practices lives on in St. Louis today in many ways, including through the availability of quality food in primarily Black neighborhoods, especially in north St. Louis city and North County. Erica Williams, founder and executive director of nonprofit A Red Circle, experienced this disinvestment firsthand. Growing up in North County, Williams watched as three major supermarkets – Schnucks, Kroger and National – closed their doors, which left her neighborhood without access to healthy food.
Now, A Red Circle provides fresh produce from its community garden and urban farms to these areas and offers programming designed to educate the community about healthy eating and cooking. “When you have a region that’s a food desert, it becomes other types of deserts – an opportunity desert, a jobs desert,” Williams says. “We really want to bring up the region of North County, not just grow food and give it out.”
The organization’s next move is to open a community-owned and -run grocery store, which will create more job opportunities. This holistic approach is the one that will be the most beneficial for the communities themselves, according to Kwon.
“What would it mean if we actually have a worker-owned and -run grocery store, in which the people who live in the neighborhood work there and take care of these things – to empower neighborhoods, rather than simply serve?” Kwon says. “[The service provision] is a model of charity rather than a model of empowerment. Part of it is we need to empower communities to do what’s right for their own communities, give them the opportunity to grow and develop, and give them the resources to do so.”
Just as it took decades of discriminatory policies to create the issues we have today, it will take decades of positive change to dismantle them. That’s why the Missouri Foundation for Health recently launched a 20-year food justice initiative with the goal to support existing organizations dedicated to the cause (like A Red Circle); remove barriers to access programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps); and build up community-run, equitable and resilient food systems.
With these methods, MFH hopes to provide healthy, affordable and culturally relevant food to Missourians in need. “We really believe that this is an issue that undercuts many of the health challenges that Missourians face,” Kaufmann says. “It’s one that we want to take on because we think that that will help accelerate some of the other changes that the foundation is invested in, like infant mortality, behavioral health and well-being – even things like our violence prevention work.”
Another organization dedicated to looking at the whole picture is The Fit and Food Connection, which realized that because many of its community members don’t have cars, simply getting to the organization’s food pantry was an obstacle. So every other Sunday, the nonprofit’s staff and volunteers gather healthy food products and fresh produce from their community garden and deliver them directly to their members’ doors.
Executive director and co-founder Gabi Cole says the nonprofit focuses on not only getting healthy food to its community members, but also providing information on healthy lifestyles and empowering people to incorporate healthy choices into their daily lives. To do this, The Fit and Food Connection offers classes that range from exercise and gardening to strategic shopping and cooking. “We want to put little, small pieces in where you are eating better and talking to yourself well, and it’s not just about the things you eat,” Cole says. “It’s about how your mobility, your mindset, the environment you’re in, and the people you have around you play a part in your overall healthy lifestyle journey. It’s very important to this community because it’s been vacant and left behind for so long.”
To help organizations like The Fit and Food Connection and A Red Circle, donating your time or money is the best way to continue moving these vital efforts forward. But more than anything, Kaufmann hopes people will continue to educate themselves on what food insecurity truly looks like in St. Louis and Missouri as a whole. “Recognize that this is a challenge that Missourians across the state are facing – not because they’re not good, hardworking people, but because the system is set up to disadvantage some of our community members.”
Fit and Food Connection, St. Louis, Missouri, 314-312-2746, fitandfoodconnection.org
A Red Circle, St. Louis, Missouri, 314-328-2286, aredcircle.org