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AmeriCorps VISTA member tackles hunger with NeighborWorks Alaska


Food insecurity. At first glance, the term seems to have something to do with protecting the food supply of a state, region or country from sabotage or natural disasters. In fact, it doesn't have much at all to do with the safety of food. Food insecurity occurs when "consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which began collecting food-insecurity statistics in 1995. Think about it this way: Food insecurity develops when a household struggles to avoid hunger—often reflecting a household's need to make tradeoffs between essentials such as rent, medical bills and food.

A report issued by the USDA in September measured food insecurity between 2014 and 2016; it estimates that the percentage of food-insecure households in 2016 was 12.3 percent (essentially unchanged from 2015's 12.7 percent). Although it reflects a downward trend from the high of 14.9 percent in 2011, it continues to be above the 2007 pre-recession level of 11.1 percent.

A man sits in front of a plate of cupcakesAs the AmeriCorps VISTA (volunteer in service to America) staffer with NeighborWorks Alaska, Armani Thomas helped the nonprofit focus on this challenge in Anchorage. Over the course of his year with the organization, Thomas worked on several projects, including the launch of a community seed library in partnership with the local public library to help build the foundation of a local food system and development of a series of related workshops to educate residents on gardening skills. 

In November, just prior to returning to his hometown of Chicago to work for The Nature Conservancy, Thomas shared some thoughts about food insufficiency and lessons he learned during his year in the largest U.S. state. 

"From the beginning of my project, I quickly learned that Anchorage, as well as Alaska as a whole, needs locally grown food more than ever right now," he said. "There was a lot of work to be done. I saw this issue to be larger than food insecurity—more like food injustice. This could change if we invest in sustainable agriculture, from small-scale gardening to large-scale farms, and become less reliant on food imports. In the1950s, Alaska provided 60 percent of its food, so why can't it be continued today?"

Although the issue of food insecurity can seem daunting and difficult to resolve, Thomas said, "there is still hope," citing local organizations working to end hunger and develop local resources. "Thankfully, there are some great programs and initiatives, like 'Yarducopia,' which gives people access to land to grow food, and the local food movement known as Alaska Grown, which encourages consumers to purchase food produced by local farmers."

Yarducopia is a program of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a small nonprofit based in Anchorage that promotes safe-gardening practices through organic, sustainable and community-based gardening. The organization combines homeowners who donate yard space and tools with volunteers who want to learn organic gardening techniques. The produce grown is split between homeowners and volunteers, saving 10 percent to be given to a charity of their choice. 

"If there was one thing I would want people to take away from me being here is that food insecurity doesn't have a defined look or common meaning among people. Many factors may cause people to lack access to food," Thomas said. "Once those factors are identified, there must be work toward a solution, because food should be treated as a necessity, not as a commodity, in a state where 1 in 5 children are food-insecure."

Every week in Alaska, 6,300 households use Food Bank of Alaska's network of food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers and other programs for food assistance. An estimated 51,900 unique households, or almost 155,000 people, are served annually, according to Food Bank of Alaska's website. The organization reports that the majority of its clients' households must choose between paying for food and paying for medical care (56 percent), housing (53 percent), transportation (64 percent) and utilities (59 percent). In addition, according to its statistics, its client families adopt coping strategies to ensure members are fed, such as eating food past its expiration date (71 percent); purchasing processed but cheap food (81 percent) or food in dented or damaged packages (57 percent); and soliciting help from family or friends (54 percent). 

"I was also glad to work with other VISTAs and organizations working toward the same common goals to alleviate food insecurity and build resiliency," Thomas said. 

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