Voices for Food

Voices for Food will be launching in four rural Michigan communities to address food security.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 15 percent of American households are food insecure. This includes 50.2 million homes, where nearly 1 in 4 of the nation’s children lives – 17 million youngsters in all and 9.6 million of them under the age of 6.

A six-state, federally-funded research project called “Voices for Food” has been launched to address food security in isolated communities known as “food deserts.” In Michigan, four communities will be selected to take part in the project.

Food deserts are defined as communities located more than 10 miles from a supermarket or other source of fresh, healthy and affordable food. The project will seek community-based strategies to increase the availability of and access to nutritious food in rural communities with high poverty rates.

The $4 million, five-year grant was announced last year. South Dakota State University is the lead institution for the multi-state collaborative project, led by Suzanne Stluka, Food & Families Program Director with SDSU Extension, serving as principal investigator. The project and funding will also include university researchers at Michigan State University, Purdue, Nebraska, Missouri and Ohio State, who will be working with communities in their respective states.

The grant project and its approach are unique because it will be applied across multiple states and taps into the expertise of multiple disciplines – including nutrition, community development, agriculture and youth. Ultimately, the focus of the grant is to develop and implement sustainable solutions that will increase availability and access to healthy food choices in these rural communities.

Implementation of the project is underway. Community demographics and infrastructure have been studied and in the spring of 2014, four communities in each of the six participating states will be selected – for 24 communities – to participate in the Voices for Food program. The development of food councils will be cultivated and maintained in each of the 24 communities with stakeholder representatives once those communities are announced. These councils may include representation from farmers, school administrators, business owners and tribal members.

This approach is different because it involves stakeholders from the community. Opportunities to increase food access are determined through work with residents and food councils of rural communities, to find out what they see as possible solutions. Councils may set up food pantries, may work with food pantries to provide support or change the way food pantries operate.

The six-state, collaborating university systems will play a key role in providing guidance to the food councils. As development of community food pantry solutions are identified, Extension coaching and nutrition education resources for food pantries will be shared and discussed.

Implementing a guided client-choice model for their food pantries is one component that all selected communities must agree to. This means that individuals are allowed to make their own choices about which foods they use, rather than receiving pre-bagged selections at the food pantry. It is the Voices for Food’s hope that food pantries and their clients will be empowered, so that a system of offering and choosing healthy foods can be created and sustained – even after the grant project is completed.

For more information contact Michigan State University Extension Voices for Food Program Coordinator Becky Henne.

(The Voices for Food grant project was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-01823 from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems Program.)