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Fresh Moves co-founder Sheelah Muhammad, left, discusses the intersectionality of racial, social and economic factors in determining life quality.


Chicago food leaders discuss solutions to injustices in Chicago's food system

by Abby Theodros
April 18, 2013

Low-income families, especially minorities, are disadvantaged when they don’t have access to nutritious food, said a group of food experts who offered a range of solutions Wednesday evening. 

Inequality of pay exacerbates Chicago’s broken food system, said a public-health scientist at the “We Can Change the Food System Chicago!” event, arguing that workplace  justice and food security are intertwined.

The event, hosted by a food-issues think tank, offered diverse perspectives from some of Chicago’s food thinkers and doers. Each speaker contributed a unique outlook on solutions to food-related challenges including malnutrition, accessibility and worker equality.

“When it comes down to it, we need to create a network of likeminded people to work towards environmentally sustainable ways to tackle these issues,” said Danielle Nierenberg, a co-founder of Food Tank, which hosted the event. 

Prominent speakers included USDA public-affairs director Alan Shannon, Fresh Moves food truck co-founder Sheelah Muhammad and public-health scientist Felipe Tendick-Matesanz, all dedicated to rectifying injustice in varying aspects of Chicago’s food system.

Shannon focused on the nutrition of all Americans and the goal to reduce and eliminate hunger and food insecurity.

Food and Nutrition Service programs “are geared towards lowering hunger and promoting nutrition, said Shannon, adding that food security “leads to better performance in school and better development, which leads to fewer health problems and lower health-care costs later on.”

According to the USDA economic research service, 85.1 percent of American households in 2011 had access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

By contrast, the other 14.9 percent of households lacked security, meaning one or more  household members had limited access to food resources consistently.

“We want to improve the nutrition levels of all Americans through food security,” Shannon said.

Attacking a similar challenge, Muhammad addressed justice in the food system.

“Your zip code is a greater determinant of health and life expectancy than your genetic code,” Muhammad said.

Fresh Moves serves as a mobile farmer’s market that offers fresh produce to pockets of Chicago that are designated food deserts.

Muhammad also mentioned the need to look at the Chicago food system through a racial, social and economic lens in order to challenge one another to bridge the racial divide.

Public health scientist Felipe Tendick-Mastesanz of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago, shared similar sentiments but focused on racial disparities in the work force. A study conducted in part by the center, revealed a $4.56 wage disparity between white employees and employees of color.

“The main challenge is finding a way to provide sustainability and vitality for employees of color … we need justice in the workplace,” Tendick-Mastesanz said.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center tackles issues of injustice by educating employees of color on methods of demanding equal rights in the work place. Tactics include speaking to senators and local representatives on issues directly affecting disadvantaged employees.

“We Can Change the Food System Chicago!” presented a diverse set of solutions to challenge Chicago’s food system.

“We think it’s time for new metrics that focus on nutrient density, environmental sustainability, youth empowerment and gender equity,” said Nierenberg.