Stocked grocery store shelves, a fridge full of food, the near-impossible task of deciding what to eat for dinner tonight. For around 380,000 people in Connecticut, these are rarified experiences. According to estimates from Feeding America, around 1 in 10 people in the state struggle with hunger, including more than 83,000 children.
Food insecurity tends to occur in consistent places and patterns. Namely, city centers and rural areas. In Hartford, the food insecurity rate – the number of people who are both low-income and lack access to healthy foods – is nearly 20%. In Waterbury, New Haven, and Bridgeport, that rate is around 16.5%.
The proposed solutions range from state programs to micro-storefronts of donated food but are united behind a simple goal: the eventual end of food insecurity in Connecticut.
According to Caitlin Caspi, Associate Professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut, there is a reason city centers and rural areas tend to experience food insecurity: These places have also experienced disinvestment in their communities.
“Some of the same factors that lead to not having a supermarket are also associated with not having well-funded schools or stable housing,” she explains.
In fact, the aforementioned definition of food insecurity is tied to income level, and therefore also frequently occurs with the same factors that determine socioeconomic status. Contributing factors include a person’s race or ethnicity, education, and whether they live in a single or two-parent household.
“Race itself is not a cause of food insecurity,” says Caspi. “Systemic racism is a cause of food insecurity at the individual level but also at the community level. Because again, you’re talking about segregation, systemic ways that certain areas and certain people living in those areas have been left out of the ability to secure themselves financially and build intergenerational wealth and have a sense of the ground solid beneath their feet and to make ends meet every month.”
These areas used to be called “food deserts” but as research has progressed, the USDA has renamed them as Low-Income/Low Access areas, and the phrase “food insecurity” has emerged. To qualify as low-income, an area must include a poverty rate of 20% or higher or a median family income of no more than 80% of the state median. Connecticut’s median household income is around $83,000. The federal poverty level for a family of four in 2023 is $30,000.
Low Access, meanwhile, refers to areas where at least a third of the population (or 500 people) live at least one mile (if in a city) or 10 miles (if in a rural area) from the nearest grocery store.
“Some of the broader issues that people are considering when they’re thinking about food access are things like cost of living,” explains Caspi. “That’s going to be driven largely by housing and rent. These costs affect people across the income spectrum, but especially hard hit would be low-income households. When you see an increase of 11% in food prices it’s just going to be a huge shock.”
This is made worse by housing shortages and rising rent. The median rent cost in Connecticut is around $2,000 monthly, increasing between 1-4% in the last year, depending on location. As families are forced to expend more of their incomes on housing, there is less to spend on healthy foods.
Caspi says this is made harder when there are a limited number of stores that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and when families can’t use those benefits to shop online. During the COVID pandemic, SNAP benefits were increased and there were fewer restrictions on where SNAP could be used. With some of those expanded benefits now expiring, families who have come to rely on them to access healthy foods will need to find new and different ways to do so.
“Increasingly, over the pandemic, when there was such a disruption in economics, employment, and income, they came to rely on those programs that have been shown to decrease food insecurity, Caspi explains. “Some of the programmatic flexibilities and rules around eligibility shape where and how people are getting their food.”
So, what’s the solution? Caspi says that any attempt to combat food insecurity should be as varied as the factors that lead to it.
“The solution is not just to build a supermarket,” she says. “It’s more complex than that. People need supermarkets, but supporting food security and nutrition should be about more than supermarkets.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s just as much about economics as it is about food.
“There are all kinds of ways to invest in a local food system. You can subsidize and encourage healthy and local food consumption,” says Caspi.
Caspi points to a number of programs already trying to tackle the problem. She includes recent expansions of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program to provide additional produce benefits as one. Those enhancements, like the ones for SNAP, were put in place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report in late 2022, the expanded program resulted in improved access to healthy foods and an increase in program participation. As a result, some are looking to make those expansions permanent.
In addition to expanding existing programs, Caspi says it is worth it to look at ways that behavioral economics, or “nudges” can steer customers toward healthy options and away from processed foods.
Some states are supporting creative solutions with projects funded through the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), a competitive grant program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. GusNIP provides funds for things like produce prescription programs and direct incentives for the purchase of healthy food options.
In neighboring Massachusetts, for example, millions in funding from GusNIP has allowed families utilizing SNAP benefits to afford $9 million more in fresh fruits and vegetables purchased from local farmer’s markets and directly from local farms. That also translates to $9 million more in direct sales for local farmers. According to the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, healthier diets also mean a decrease in public spending on healthcare costs.
While the work to combat food insecurity is difficult, government programs and food-related legislation are only a small part of decreasing food insecurity. Just as different neighborhoods have their unique residents and challenges, so do they require unique solutions.
That’s where community-based programs like food pantries, community gardens, local markets, and community restaurants come into play.
Hands On Hartford is one such organization. The 54-year-old non-profit provides among its many services a long-running food pantry. Set up under the “shopping model,” the pantry allows people to choose the items that best fit their taste and diet.
“It’s arranged kind of like a little store, for lack of a better way of saying it,” says Barbara Shaw, executive director of Hands On Hartford. She’s been with the program for 21 years and is proud of the work they do in the community. “They come in and we have a selection of shelf-stable products; cereals and pasta and beans and rice and different things like that. And then we emphasize — because of the health connection — produce.”
The pantry supports more than 800 Hartford area families each month, providing milk, eggs, and a selection of frozen meats on top of the usual staples. The program follows the Support Wellness at Pantries, or SWAP, model, which helps to educate families about the health benefits of different foods while also providing options that meet cultural, religious, or dietary needs.
Shaw notes that the recent combination of skyrocketing food prices and a loss of pandemic-era SNAP benefit increases have put some families in a particular bind.
“Given the rising cost of food these days, even if you’re losing $30-40 a month, it’s quite a loss,” she says. “So being able to come into a pantry is really critical to keeping food on the table.”
Providing food on its own, however, isn’t the entire solution. Just as Caspi notes the correlation between economic hardship and food access, Shaw says helping people live healthier lives requires more than just filling their stomachs.
At Hands On Hartford, families can come in and pick up food from the pantry and at the same time can access resources that help them find more secure, affordable housing. Providing a place for people to interact with the staff also allows them to check in and provide other resources.
For example, several hundred local kids participate in a program providing nutritional backpacks each week. These packs are loaded with healthy food options for students to take home for the weekend, which Shaw says provides a very necessary level of security for those families.
“We hear from the families that that’s really important over those weekends,” she says. “Most of the families in that program are extremely low income and some are below the federal poverty line. So, the need for any and all food resources is just huge.”
Providing wide-reaching community services requires the participation and cooperation of a community of people and organizations, working together to combat a problem.
Fifty years ago, a Hartford City Councilwoman named Betty Knox had an idea to make that a reality.
“Betty believed strongly in the importance of preserving Hartford’s green spaces, but also making sure that everyone in the city received part of the benefits of those green spaces,” explains Patrick Doyle, executive director of KNOX, the non-profit named in her honor.
KNOX has expanded in the decades since Betty decided to green up the city of Hartford, and in that time, they have developed into an organization that provides a wide variety of programs from beautification initiatives to environmental education programs. Among those resources are their expansive community gardens, 21 in total.
These community gardens are made up of previously blighted properties that the organization has repurposed to a more productive use.
“We have over 300 people that are using those gardens to grow fresh produce for themselves or to share with their families and friends,” says Doyle.
With gardens all over the city, KNOX prides itself on the diversity of its gardeners as well as its ability to assist new and inexperienced gardeners with their crops.
“I think one of the great things about our community gardens is it’s not any one demographic,” says Doyle. “There are tons of different languages spoken in our gardens. There are people from truly all walks of life. And I think what brings them together is that tie to the space and wanting to grow food and an interest in doing that.”
The gardens vary in size and style, from the more traditional four-foot by eight-foot raised bed to a 30-foot by 15-foot plot of land. Gardeners in the program are provided with the space and can use seeds from KNOX’s seed library at no cost, which can be especially helpful to low-income gardeners who can’t afford the resources to get started on their own. The organization also provides compost and water, and staff and volunteers provide advice and assistance.
Once gardeners get growing, KNOX is hands-off, allowing their gardeners to grow what they want, how they want, and to use those fruits and vegetables how they see fit. With grocery stores few and far between within the Hartford city limits, Doyle says community gardens provide residents with fresh and healthy foods, as well as a personal stake in what they’re eating.
“I think the other thing though that’s really important about community gardens is the way that KNOX manages our gardens is trying to create sovereignty within that so that it is the gardener themselves, the person who’s working the land, and the person who wants to decide what happens with that food is the person who gets to decide what’s being grown there and how”
Come harvest time, KNOX works with Hands On Hartford and other food pantries and soup kitchens to donate excess produce. Doyle says if they have a plan for where it is going, the food stays in the community, and the organization receiving the food knows that it is fresh. And donation isn’t the only way KNOX helps get fresh food into the community.
“Sometimes in our gardens, there’s just like a plastic crate on the outside of the fence, or we’ve worked with some volunteer groups to build almost like market shelves that we can put outside the garden,” says Doyle, explaining how even informal food sharing can play an important role in keeping a community fed and healthy. “And that way if gardeners have excess at harvest time, they’ve got more food than they can eat, they just put that in those spaces outside the fence. And the community knows that if there’s food in there, they’re welcome to take it and enjoy it.”
According to Doyle, KNOX has put more than eight tons of food back into the local food system through their community growers.
In addition to community gardens, KNOX has also started an urban farming program, teaching members of the community how to grow food in a city setting in greater quantities than is usually provided by a simple community garden plot.
“[Participants are] really focused on growing food on a larger scale to try and support a small business, whether that’s selling at farmer’s markets or direct to consumer or direct to the grocery store or a restaurant,” explains Doyle. “To sort of figure out how to both grow food, but also what their business model is and how they can use that to support themselves beyond just the food they grow and being able to eat that food.”
For those lacking access to healthy foods or without the time, energy, or ability to participate in a community garden and grow it yourself, there is another option: local farmer’s markets.
In Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, Forge City Works has been putting on their market for years, providing local growers a place to sell their produce and other locally produced foods direct to the community.
While farmer’s markets can be a great place to get locally grown fruits and vegetables, they are not known for affordability.
For low-income families, though, farmer’s markets can sometimes be the best option.
“Many of the farmer’s markets, particularly here in Hartford, accept SNAP and many of them even double SNAP benefits, which is something that we have done historically,” says Ben Dubow, executive director of Forge City Works. “It’s actually a pretty significant source for people who have both food insecurity and lack access to healthy foods, so it really maximizes their dollars.”
The problem with farmer’s markets is their schedule. Many operate on a weekly basis during certain hours, making it hard for people who work, take care of children, or lack access to reliable transportation to utilize them. To help, Forge City Works is changing things up. Rather than providing a seasonal farmer’s market a few times a month, they’re transitioning into a full-time community grocery store.
“It’ll be a small neighborhood market,” explains Dubow. “We’ll stock it with a lot of produce, meat, dairy, cheeses, those kinds of things. And then your staples, but really staples that are ingredients, not like processed foods, ready-to-eat kind of stuff.”
Dubow says the market will price food on a sliding scale model based on a person’s ability to pay which could provide up to a 50% discount to lower-income shoppers. Those discounts would then also apply to SNAP benefits, allowing families to get more bang for their buck.
The market is planned to open later this year and Dubow says they’ve already received plenty of positive feedback.
“There’s a lot of excitement within the neighborhood and within the local area and even other neighborhoods that are beginning to think about — other nonprofits have come to us to ways on how they could replicate that model,” he says. “Because there’s such a need, particularly in our cities. Not just Hartford, but really all of our cities in Connecticut really face similar issues.”
While there is a grassroots movement to end food insecurity, it is also a topic up for discussion at the state capitol in the form of HB 6854. The bill would establish a food access advocate position in state government and provide tax incentives for companies or individuals planning to establish a grocery store in a recognized “food desert.”
On May 31st, the House approved the bill, with small amendments, and sent it to the Senate. But it isn’t without controversy, of course, as some Republican members of the legislature take issue with the bill’s requirement that new grocery stores must enter into agreements with labor unions in order to take advantage of the tax credit.
Still, with broad bipartisan support, it is a strong indicator that providing healthy, affordable meals is a cause that reaches across the boundaries of both politics and communities. If the work being done on the front lines of food insecurity is any indication, crossing those borders and finding creative ways to work together will be a key factor in ensuring that everyone in Connecticut can fill their plate with healthy foods.