Advocates dish out advice for combating food deserts

On a paper plate, Phyllis DiDiano draws a green garden under a bright yellow sun — ripe with carrots and pumpkins to give it the perfect autumn feel.

But to Ms. DiDiano of Beechview, her crayon creation is a message to the community about the importance of child nutrition.

“We need nutritious food and fresh food to be available, and everybody can do a little bit in their yards or in their pots,” she says, coloring in her vegetables.

It was on those same paper plates that more than 300 people were served a free community meal Sunday afternoon on Grant Street in Downtown as part of a celebration of Pittsburgh Food Day and a guided discussion on how to create a sustainable food system for the region.

The first Sunday Supper, hosted by the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, sought to bring together residents, community leaders and food activists for a healthy dinner and a meaningful conversation. Over a meal of vegetarian chili, wood-fired bread and green leaf and quinoa salads, the council led small group discussions on how to improve the availability of fresh and affordable food to people of all incomes.

Low access to nutritious food is a significant problem facing many communities across the country, especially in Pittsburgh, where 47 percent of residents live in what are known as food deserts. In Allegheny County alone, nearly 180,000 people suffer from food insecurity, or the lack of access to enough fresh food for a healthy life, according to Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap project.

“Access to food is something that touches everyone, and so does the food system,” said Dora Walmsley, outreach and communications manager for the PFPC. “We’re not just talking about a neighborhood having a grocery store, but we’re also thinking about the farmers who are growing our food and the individuals who are picking our food, and processing and distributing it — the whole chain.”

Facing a multifaceted issue such as food equity, solutions and suggestions were plentiful at the long dinner tables outside the City-Council Building. Jonathan Burgess of the Allegheny County Conservation District said he wants people to be “smart with how they garden,” which includes checking to make sure their soil isn’t contaminated. Charlotte Fong, who gave out lettuce plants as a volunteer for Phipps Conservatory, talked of the importance of farmers markets to promote healthy eating.

And the treatment of food workers, many of whom make poverty wages and report injuries on the job, was a topic of concern for Stephanie Boddie, a member of the PFPC’s steering committee and co-chairwoman of the Regional Food Economy working group.

But Ms. Boddie also said she worries about the children.

“We need to expose children earlier to healthy food, and have more innovative approaches to getting food on the table,” she said. “The question is, how can we make this food accessible to people who have low and moderate incomes?”

Though the growing disparity in food access won’t be solved in one day, the PFPC’s supper got some attendees thinking.

“Food insecurity is a very real thing, and it’s not really talked about as much as it should be,” said Andrew Woomer of Friendship. “We typically don’t think of it whenever we talk about food issues. We think about starvation, not necessarily malnutrition or access to healthy food.

“It’s important work that they’re doing.”

Julian Routh:; 412-263-1488. Twitter: @julianrouth.

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