Opinion: Utahns struggle with food insecurity. Cities and towns can help.

There are many ways cities and towns can promote access to healthy food — from creative and innovative, to straightforward and simple.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shannon Callahan selects food at the Salt Lake VA's new food pantry, Thursday June 22, 2017. Research shows one-quarter of vets who get care through VA report food insecurity in the past month. That's a higher rate than general population.

A funny social media trend features parents bemoaning their children’s abilities to eat an absurd amount of berries. A common complaint is that the berries are going to “break the bank,” or that parents “can’t afford the berry habit.”

But maybe it’s not actually that funny.

Parents want their kids to eat nutrient-dense berries, as well as other fruits. At the same time, my kids can eat six ounces of blueberries (currently $3.49 at Smith’s) on the drive home from the store. A family that is struggling to make ends meet cannot regularly afford such an expensive snack.

According to the USDA, food security means “access by all people at all times to enough food for a healthy life.” As of 2021, more than 300,000 Utahns experienced food insecurity. That number seems to be increasing as pandemic-era benefits end and inflation drives up the cost of everyday needs. Rebekah Anderson, director of the Bountiful Food Pantry, says that the number of families they serve on an average shift has doubled. On Saturdays, that number has tripled. Frequently, they see clients who have never been to a food pantry before.

You might have heard several myths about food insecurity, like hunger isn’t a problem in my community, or people who need food pantries are unemployed and homeless. But many families — even those with at least one working adult — still find themselves struggling to make ends meet. They might have to make difficult decisions about buying cheaper, calorie-dense foods, rather than more expensive, nutrient-dense foods.

Food pantries can help close some gaps. Anderson said that their average visitor “100%” wants healthy food options, and they do their best to partner with organizations to provide fresh produce, dairy, meat and more.

Too often, though, nonprofits like food pantries are left to fight for food security alone.

As executive director of the nonprofit Get Healthy Utah, I help to run the Healthy Utah Community designation program. This designation recognizes cities and towns that have implemented strategies to improve health in three areas: active living, access to healthy food and mental well-being.

In my experience, city and town leaders are familiar with how they can improve active living (through trails, parks and recreation, infrastructure, etc.). They are excited to offer mental health options for their residents (through offering classes, free gun locks, medication drop-offs, etc.) But they struggle to see their role in increasing access to healthy food.

In reality, though, cities and towns have a variety of policies and program options they can implement to reduce food insecurity in their communities. With support from Get Healthy Utah, the Utah Foundation recently released a report outlining many of those options.

Option 1: Bring healthy food options closer to residents.

“Food deserts” are areas with low access to affordable, nutritious food. “Food swamps,” on the other hand, have an overabundance of fast and junk food options. As of 2018, more than 800,000 Utahns lived in food deserts; an unknown number live in swamps.

What can cities and towns do? Like Santaquin or West Haven, they can incentivize building new, high-quality, SNAP-eligible grocery stores. They can help transform existing convenience stores into healthy corner stores. And they can close transportation gaps, which can reduce the time it takes residents to reach grocery stores.

Option 2: Prioritize local food.

Utah is fortunate to have a robust agricultural economy, but many Utahns have to rely on packaged and processed foods instead of local products.

How can cities and towns connect farm fresh food to residents? They can organize and promote local farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs). Like Vineyard, cities and towns can build community gardens close to residents. They can explore options for reducing food waste and facilitate connections between local farmers and schools. Over the long term, they can support the creation of food hubs (centralized distribution centers that connect local products with regional markets).

Option 3: Dedicate city or town resources to improving food access.

Finally, many people want to eat healthy food but cannot afford it. Cities and towns can play a role here too.

Communities can support SNAP through, for example, programs that offer application assistance. They can also dedicate staff time and resources to these issues. For example, Ogden has formed a coalition to collaborate on addressing food insecurity. This coalition has worked together on multiple projects, including an assessment of food security needs in Weber County.

Food security isn’t a siloed issue: It is affected by wages, housing prices, transportation, homelessness and more. Unlike active transportation or recreation, it doesn’t fit neatly into existing city or town departments. But that doesn’t mean that cities and towns should feel powerless.

I encourage all community leaders to review the Utah Foundation’s new report and consider which policies and changes can most benefit their community.

Alysia Ducuara

Alysia Ducuara is the Executive Director of Get Healthy Utah, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering a culture of health in Utah.

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