During a community conversation in South King County—about 10 miles from Seattle—residents had the opportunity to share some of the on-the-ground realities of accessing healthy foods. Poignantly, one community member said, “If you are going to talk about access to healthy food, you have to talk about affordability.” Another community member added, “Why is Top Ramen cheaper than veggies?” These residents touched on the reality that while everyone deserves healthy options, some communities are left behind.
Food-insecure households often stretch their budget by purchasing energy dense items that may not be considered “healthy” options
Locally, one in five South King County families do not always have enough to eat and healthy food is even harder for some to afford. Low income families who cannot reliably get enough food (also known as food insecurity) use a number of coping strategies that put them at risk for diet-related health consequences. To stretch budgets, food insecure households often purchase cheap, energy-dense foods to stave off hunger, and parents eat irregularly or skip meals sacrificing their own nutrition for the sake of their children. Twenty percent of youth and twenty-eight percent of adults in South King County are not at a healthy weight, putting them at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
INVESTING IN AFFORDABLE, HEALTHY FOOD SOLUTIONS
King County is working collaboratively with the community to remove some of the economic and societal constraints of healthy food affordability. It has centered its’ efforts on two key, integrated approaches. The Local Food Initiative was launched by King County’s Executive Dow Constantine in 2014 to get more locally grown, healthy and affordable food to kitchen tables. To accomplish this vision, the initiative supports strategies that create a robust and resilient local food system while increasing access to nutritious, affordable food in underserved communities.
Through Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH), three main entities in the region, Public Health – Seattle & King County, the Healthy King County Coalition, and Seattle Children’s Hospital were brought together to work directly with community partners to address healthy food access.
PICH supported an innovative effort by the South King County Food Coalition to increase healthy food access in their community by turning a former golf course into Elk Run Farm. Food banks in South King County serve 30,000 families a month, but fresh produce can be hard to come by. With its establishment, Elk Run Farm utilizes volunteers from the community and surrounding schools to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. This produce is then distributed to the Coalition’s 12 member food banks.
Another strategy has been to reduce the barriers low income families face in being able to afford fresh, local fruits and vegetables by incentivizing low income families to use their SNAP benefits at farmers markets. The Fresh Bucks program, administered by the City of Seattle, provides a $1 to $1 match for people who use their SNAP benefits at farmers markets (up to $10 match). In 2016, over 4,500 people participated spending $135,000 of Fresh Bucks. This program continues to expand and will be offered at 32 farmers markets in 2017.
Across King County, the Good Food Bag program is another effort that aims to increase the accessibility of fresh produce. The program delivers subsidized farm fresh produce to families in Seattle and South King County with limited financial resources and has distribution sites that include preschools, churches and public health centers. The bags, which are delivered weekly, contain locally grown fruits and vegetables, along with recipes for cooking healthy meals. In 2016, 5901 Good Food Bags were delivered to 888 families.
THE POTENTIAL FOR IMPACT
Nationally, obesity is on track to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of cancer in the United States. In Washington State, if we can reduce average body mass index (BMI) by 5% by 2030, we can prevent over 11,000 new cases of cancer. Taken as part of a comprehensive strategy, these programs have the potential to increase healthy food access to ensure that everyone, regardless of income-level, has the opportunity to make healthy choices.