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An Open Letter on the State of Fresh Food in the Lehigh Valley

A note: My interest in food writing and journalism includes making access to good food equitable for all people. I originally wrote this piece for an underground newspaper at my college, but I think that now, more than ever, this is a story that needs to be told. This is only a glimpse into the issues of food insecurity that plague our country, and I hope it will be the first in a series to be published on this site and elsewhere.

Dear Lehigh Valley,

I know you may not have heard this, because there doesn’t seem to be an outlet that tells these kinds of stories, but a large portion of the urban population of the Lehigh Valley lives in food deserts, meaning they have low accessibility to healthy food, restricted by distance or cost or some combination of the two. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their homes nationwide, and recent data shows that large portions of downtown Allentown and Bethlehem fit this criteria, with at least 22,500 people in Allentown living in areas defined as having both low incomes and low access to nutritious food by the USDA.

 “Food insecurity is a chronic problem, and it’s an acute problem,”  says Dr. Alison Harmon, a professor at Montana State University who researches food insecurity and sustainable food systems. “When we think about sustainable food, sustainably produced food, we often think about ‘that’s expensive’ and that’s not necessarily helping address hunger issues,” says Dr. Harmon. “[But] any time you can connect entitlement programs [like food stamps] with local and sustainable producers, you’ve overcome that obstacle.”

There are local initiatives working to make fresh, healthy food more accessible to all. One major initiative is the Easton Urban Farm at the Easton Area Neighborhood Center. What had been a community garden since the 1970s, was formalized and fenced in in 1989, and revamped in 2010 is now a ⅝ acre farm on Easton park property that provides for low income populations of the Lehigh Valley. The plot of land sits just on the southern border of the city of Easton, fenced in next to a playground and the Easton Area Neighborhood Center itself. It is now overseen by master gardener Mark Reid, who supervises the volunteer-staffed farming operations, and tries to manage the land to produce the best yield for the community.

Fresh Napa cabbage, the last crops at the Easton Urban Farm in early December (circa 12/6/2019).

The produce from the Easton Urban Farm goes to a few places. In 2012, the community endeavor worked with the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership to provide produce to the West Ward of Easton, the city’s most impoverished area. But in 2015, the Neighborhood Partnership came on hard times and turned over control of the farm to the Easton Area Neighborhood Center (EANC). 

“This year, and we aren’t quite done, we’ve already harvested in excess of 6,500 pounds of produce,” says Ross Marcus, Executive Director of the EANC. Half of the produce goes to the EANC Food Bank to supplement the shelf stable goods that feed struggling residents of Easton, and the other half goes to the West Ward. Nearly 9,000 pounds of produce were distributed in the West Ward this year, about 3,000 from the Easton Urban Farm, and the rest through Vegetables in the Community, a Lafayette College program and their own community garden, La Farm, as well as an employee-managed garden at Crayola. 

“The pantry serves people from all over Easton,” says Marcus, “but predominantly the South Side [due to location]… predominantly low-income. It’s a very diverse constituency for both programs, both our food pantry and the Vegetables in the Community program. It is very common to see people of all races, all backgrounds, and they come and they share their own culture. One of the interesting things, I think, is that we put the vegetables out and it looks like a farmers market.”

On Friday, December 6, things were a little colder and sadder than Marcus had described. There was one small table with some root vegetables and onions, and some very pale lettuce donated from a local farm, in addition to large donation boxes of almost expired chips and condiments courtesy of the local YMCA. Just before the doors opened at 9am for the weekly rush of pantry attendees, master gardener Mark Reid added a few heads of fresh Napa cabbage to the offerings. 

When the pantry officially opened, more than 15 people had already lined up, bundled up from the cold of walking to the pantry (as most of attendees do) in the 39 degree chill. As they each signed in and took an index card marked with a number in Sharpie to receive entry to the pantry proper, they milled about the tables of donated food, filling bags with snacks and more. Only a few people seemed to really partake in the somewhat sad produce offering, but the Napa cabbage was gone within minutes, so one can only imagine how people benefit in the fresh produce of the summers. 

The pantry itself was more machine-like, calling in two people at a time, to a working room with doors to two storage closets full of canned goods. Their number cards were taken, then they were asked how many in their family and offered them each item in English or Spanish with rhythmic precision. “What kind of meat? Green beans? *thunk* Corn? *thunk* What kind of juice?” before passing them on and shouting out the next number. From the 9 A.M. opening, there was no break until 28 families had been served, at 9:49, when the staff and volunteers started to restock the shelves of the working room and break down boxes.

Seeing the disparity of how these people struggle to get the nutrition they need doesn’t seem like it should coexist with fancy farm-to-table eateries. When Kelly Allen, board chair of the Bethelehem Co-op, was asked about how a recent uptick in high end sustainable dining options might conflict with their operations, he said, “When people say ‘Food is too expensive,’ pardon my French, but I have to call bullshit on that. We are paying for farmers’ labor, and these small farms are not rolling in cash. We often put the blame on farmers and food packagers, but the problem is that people aren’t making enough money. The cost of living is out of control, but wages aren’t keeping up.”

Dr. Harmon put it a little more technically, saying, “I think that [high end sustainable options] are necessary. There’s a diversity of customers, and I think that you want local and sustainable food to be able to reach customers of the whole income spectrum. It may be that the ability to market that food at high end restaurants is actually going to keep local growers in business… If you can have a business model that’s more diverse, you’re going to need customers that can afford to pay top dollar, then you can make room for customers who can’t… I know a lot of producers who want to do that, and they’re willing to do that, but they will depend upon the high end customer to help make it happen.”

Making healthy and sustainable food options available are central to helping the health of populations in food deserts like parts of the Lehigh Valley. The ways in which we do this can vary, from more community gardens, more entitlement programs connecting with local farms, even the proliferation of more sustainable restaurants. The Lehigh Valley needs to receive more nutrition and more security than it does currently and will if we can find ways to make fresh food more accessible. In short, the Lehigh Valley needs our help.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Student

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