A truly sustainable food system is a food system that provides healthy food for all communities. In my food systems career in Flint, MI, I have observed that adequate nutrition is especially important in a community that has been subject to environmental injustice and social inequality. The Flint Water Crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have both highlighted that in order to support community-wide health in Flint, a sustainable local food system that provides equitable access to healthy options must be cultivated.
My five year career in Flint has included time spent serving as a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member, managing the Flint Recovery Corps, coordinating nutrition education programming, and currently leading the work of Edible Flint, a nonprofit that supports urban gardening and healthy food access in the city. Work toward a more sustainable food system in Flint began long before I moved to the Vehicle City, and the progress made thus far is the result of creative problem solving and collaborative efforts between determined community members and supportive organizations to make a more vibrant Flint food system a reality, no matter the obstacles.
Flint Water Crisis
The Flint Water Crisis has become one of the most defining events in the city’s history, and had a major impact on the value of nutritious foods to city residents. When an emergency financial manager switched the source of Flint’s municipal water supply in 2014 and proper corrosion control measures were not implemented, Flint’s water supply became tainted with lead. For nearly 18 months, government officials failed to acknowledge the issue and thousands of Flint residents, many of them children, consumed lead-tainted water.
In response to this lead exposure and the discovery of elevated blood lead levels in Flint children, medical professionals stressed the importance of certain nutrients to combat lead exposure. Foods high in iron, vitamin C, and calcium have been shown to reduce lead absorption in the body and the importance of these nutrients was shared widely within the Flint community (1). While nothing can reverse lead poisoning, consuming these foods can slow the absorption of lead in the body.
In order to make sure that Flint residents had access to these foods, “Help Centers” across the city provided free fruits, vegetables, and clean water. The Double Up Food Bucks program, which provides additional funds for fruits and vegetables to be purchased with SNAP benefits, was also expanded in Flint in response to the water crisis. Nutrition education efforts were also increased with SNAP-Education nutrition classes and outreach from Michigan State University Extension focusing specifically on growing, preparing, and eating lead-mitigating foods. Programs such as Flint Kids Cook and Flint Families Cook were created to support families in preparing healthy meals together. Edible Flint provided information about gardening safely with lead-contaminated water and provided low-cost soil lead tests and gardening resources for city residents.
The yet-ongoing Flint Water Crisis brought specific attention to the importance of nutritious food in supporting health and mitigating the impacts of environmental contaminants. The coordinated response to get healthy foods to those who needed it most showcases the collaborative work that is reinvigorating the Flint food system.
With the effects of the water crisis still being felt throughout the Flint community, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought worldwide attention to the importance of nutrition for supporting overall health and a strong immune system. The effects of environmental racism were also made more clear by the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately affected African American communities in Michigan, including Flint (2).
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of the global food supply and changed the way that Flint residents accessed food. The simple act of grocery shopping was flipped on its head and Flint’s already-high poverty and unemployment rates increased. Accessing healthy foods was even more challenging than normal, and those with less resources faced particular difficulties in stocking up on food supplies throughout the pandemic.
The same creative and collaborative solutions that emerged during the height of the water crisis emerged in Flint during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and community groups hosted food giveaways and virtual community conversations to ensure that every families’ needs were being met. As was seen across the country, more people turned to growing their own food through backyard and community gardening. Similarly, nutrition educators turned to virtual methods to reach program participants with information about obtaining, preparing, and eating healthy foods. Video resources highlighting recipe demonstrations, farmers market tours, and healthy eating lessons were created and shared across the community.
It is an exciting and fast-paced time in Flint food systems work. The importance of healthy food for lead mitigation, immune system support, and overall health is well known, so the next focus in Flint is ensuring that the healthy foods that residents want and need are produced locally with environmentally and socially sustainable practices.
Organizations and individuals are working to support a food system that provides adequate nutrition for all while providing a living wage for Flint residents, supporting the local economy, and preserving the community’s natural resources for generations to come. The Flint community has unjustly dealt with crisis on top of crisis, but will emerge from these circumstances as a stronger, healthier, and more collaborative community than ever before.
(1) Michigan State University Extension. (2016). Fight Lead with Nutrition. https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/fight_lead_with_nutrition.
(2) Parpia, A. S., Martinez, I., El-Sayed, A. M., Wells, C. R., Myers, L., Duncan, J., Collins, J., Fitzpatrick, M. C., Galvani, A. P., & Pandey, A. (2021). Racial disparities in covid-19 mortality across Michigan, United States. EClinicalMedicine, 33, 100761. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.100761
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