While the United States (or U.S) is certainly considered a land of opportunity and possibility, it is not necessarily always a place of abundance. When considering the issue of food production and distribution across a country as big and diverse as the U.S., it may surprise many people to learn that “food deserts” exist in great numbers across the country. Food deserts are defined as areas of the country lacking in fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods, and they are most commonly impoverished areas. In the U.S., 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts. In 2009, 2.3 million Americans lived over a mile away from a grocery store and did not own a car; that’s over 2% of all households. For families facing the challenges of living in a food desert, the difficulties are many. Culturally-appropriate food is difficult to obtain, dietary restrictions such as lactose intolerance and gluten allergies are difficult to manage, the travel and time costs of grocery shopping increases the desirability of fast food over prepared meals, and the price variances of food across small markets and stores decreases the desirability of healthy food.
It’s no secret that eating fast and highly processed food is harmful to our bodies, but the collective effect of an entire neighborhood or area eating unhealthily is staggering. People living in neighborhoods with the lowest availability of healthy foods are 55% less likely to have a high-quality diet than those living in areas with greater availability. When fruits and vegetables are priced high, there are greater increases in children’s weight over time. People living in areas with greater availability of healthy food have a 45% reduced-incidence of diabetes over a five-year period. When families moved to non-poor neighborhoods, body mass indexes were significantly reduced. Shockingly, $71 billion in healthcare costs related to chronic illnesses could be saved with healthier eating.
According to the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, 20% of those living in a food desert have an income at or below the federal poverty level for family size. While there are many factors involved in families’ circumstances including economic pressures, job shortages, cost-of-living increases, and education limitations, the clear message is that there are far too many families struggling to access healthy food options.
The reassuring news is that work is being done to help. Thanks to initiatives like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, grocery stores and healthy food retailers are being established in underserved rural and urban communities across America. Salad Bars to Schools provides three million students with access to fresh salad bars in their schools, and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 increased funding for school meals and snacks for over 50 million students.
While these larger-scale initiatives are much-needed and essential to bridge the gap of nutritional disparity in America, so too are smaller nonprofits and fundraisers.
Eat, Drink, and Support is a fundraiser held in Los Angeles in December to benefit the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has distributed enough food for more than 1 billion meals since 1973 and Eat, Drink, and Support was the last event closing out the Food Bank’s 45th anniversary year. Held on December 22nd at the Food Bank’s downtown LA location, Eat, Drink, and Support was attended by 500 guests with all ticket sales donated to the Food Bank. With every dollar equating to 4 meals for people in need, the fundraiser generated 200,000 meals for the LA community. In an afternoon of culinary samplings and musical entertainment, celebrity chefs and musicians volunteered their talents in support of the LA Food Bank. Chefs Bruce Kalman, Tyler Anderson, Antonia Lofaso, Nick Shipp, and Duff Goldman supplied delicious offerings like meatball parmesan sandwiches, pizza, rigatoni, fire-roasted corn, ratatouille, and warm bread pudding à la mode. Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl was also in attendance, serving savory smoked meats from his newest venture, Backbeat BBQ. The event also featured musical performances by Jessarae, Jessica Childress, Chevy Metal featuring Taylor Hawkins, and Wiley Hodgden with special guests Nikki Sixx and Dave Grohl.
Organized by culinary emcee and producer Billy Harris, and producers Paul Vitagliano and KC Mancebo, Eat, Drink, and Support was a monumental success for the LA community. “This facility serves 30,000 meals every day and distributes to six or seven hundred different organizations in the city including missions, homes, and shelters,” Harris explained to FtC.
This event brings awareness to an amazing organization and the work they do on a daily basis. Everyone loves to eat, drink, and have a good time, so we can do that and help those that are a little less fortunate; it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Vitagliano noted that, “Events like Eat, Drink, and Support shine a spotlight on issues affecting our community while raising much-needed funds. Unfortunately, there are many in our community that need help as food, housing, and healthcare are critical for survival. They are our collective responsibility and we need to ensure our community is supported.” For KC Mancebo, it’s all about bringing a community together. “We need to help strengthen the fabric of our society and the culture of our city. It’s about raising awareness about the needs of our fellow community members to help build a stronger community.”
Lance Robertson, also known as DJ Lance Rock from Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba! was also in attendance. A Los Angeles resident himself, Robertson was thrilled to bring attention to a great cause in his hometown.
This is one of the best things you can do, especially around the holiday season,” he told FtC. “We’re so fortunate in southern California; we’re so blessed and have such an abundance of things. It’s a great thing for so many people to come together and give back. It’s a great feeling and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”
As Lance notes, there are many great causes and charities that provide specific services, but the commonality in humankind is our need to eat. “People need sustenance,” he noted. “We need sustenance to stay healthy and this is a really great event for Los Angeles to be a part of. People are getting behind this and I think it will continue to grow. Los Angelenos tend to commit to something when it’s to help their fellow man.”
The emotional draw to put on an event like Eat, Drink, and Support is a sentiment shared by its producers. “I believe that if you have the means to do so, one of the best things you can do is give back to your community and that is what we are doing at this event,” Billy Harris said. “It’s the simple pleasure of knowing that many in our community are not going hungry tonight that makes all the effort, planning, and execution of Eat, Drink, and Support worth it.” Vitagliano agreed: “We invited C-CAP students (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program) to work side-by-side with the likes of Chefs Antonia Lofaso, Duff Goldman, Bruce Kalman, Nick Shipp, and Dave Grohl. This experience is priceless and is something these young people will remember for the rest of their lives.” As a fifth generation Angeleno, Mancebo has been volunteering since she was young.
“I think it’s my civic duty to volunteer. Creating events like this allows me to give back to my community and helps to show the great need that our fellow Angelenos have,” Mancebo explained. “I like to think that I am helping to create more compassion and empathy in our society.”
While the community turn-out was fantastic, corporate support also bolstered the event in a big way. Breville erected a full café for the event, while Imperial Western Brewery kept the drinks flowing in the beer garden. Barilla donated 2,600 pounds of pasta to the Food Bank which is 16,000 servings and they are also extending their partnership to support the East LA mobile market in 2019. Wells Fargo also presented Eat, Drink and Support with a cheque for $10,000 as part of their second-annual Holiday Food Bank program.
For Paul Vitagliano, philanthropy is a vital part of his work. He is the executive producer and partner of the Billy Harris Dinner Series of culinary events, and together with Harris, they have raised over $350,000 through their dinners for charities including the LA Food Bank, No Kid Hungry, Alex’s Lemonade, and The Trotter Project. Mancebo also has an expansive philanthropic reach, working with Whole Planet and Whole Kid Foundation.
Whole Kid is a wonderful program that teaches children how to grow their own food and raises money to provide grants to schools across the country to grow and expand their school gardens,” she shared. “This program is so important as many of the students in the U.S. school system have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Moving forward, the challenge for the U.S. will continue to be supporting communities in-need to create a more sustainable food system that ensures no one goes hungry while also making sure that healthier food options are more readily available and accessible. “People think it’s a lack of food in the country, but it’s all about access to good food,” Harris noted. “We actually have more food than we know what to do with. There are a number of really great programs doing good work including No Kid Hungry’s Summer Meals Program and In School Breakfast program just to name a couple.” Vitagliano feels that there needs to be a societal shift to get back to basics in terms of growing, distributing, and consuming food. “Minimally processed foods, thoughtfully grown foods, and sustainably and humanely raised proteins that ideally are organic and non-GMO are the ultimate goal,” he stated.
As a society, we need to focus more on locally-produced food. We see this with urban farms, community gardens, and school farming projects. We also need to better utilize unused lands and protect the oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams from overfishing and pollution. We have the resources and the knowledge, it’s just a matter of shifting priorities and actions to reflect what is really important to us as a community.”
For KC Mancebo, she feels that much can be gained through food education. “I have worked with local school districts for the past 10 years to make small changes to the school food system,” she said, “focusing on eliminating plastic water bottle sales, moving to refillable water stations, reducing the amount of processed food presented to children in the school breakfast and lunch programs, and increasing school garden projects. Building more teacher and student participation builds more awareness about food and sustainability. Teaching children about food and where it comes from will help to move our communities forward.”
There may not be a simple or streamlined answer to eradicating hunger and food deserts in America, but thanks to the hard work of many organizations and charities big and small, steps are being taken to improve the quality of life for struggling Americans. Look for opportunities in your local community to support food banks, community gardens, and school programs. You can also host your own personal or neighborhood fundraisers to help serve organizations in your area. And as the attendees of the event can attest, although it’s delicious to Eat and Drink, it’s gratifyingly divine to Support.