Food for Thought: Springfield's Food Crisis

How do you get fresh and healthy food to those most in need? That question is being tossed around by community leaders and non-profits, and the answer might surprise you.

By Ettie Berneking | Photography By Chuck Travers

Jul 2015

Cat Johnson’s grocery budget consists of the $89 she gets each month in food stamps, and that doesn’t go far.

Meet Cat Johnson.

Seven months ago, she was homeless. During the day, she hit the pavement looking for housing, a way out. At night she ended up at Safe to Sleep, a women’s homeless shelter. Food was scarce, and weeks could go by before Cat was able to get her hands on any fresh fruits and vegetables. If one of the shelters served salad, Cat loaded up. But now, things are looking better.

Cat has housing, but food is still limited. Her grocery budget consists of the $89 she gets each month in food stamps, and that doesn’t go far. 

For someone who is still squarely facing off against poverty, Cat has a surprisingly optimistic outlook. It’s inspiring.

Ask her how she manages to stay so positive, and she’ll tell you. “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she says. This is Cat’s mantra. 

“It’s all about giving back and helping those who haven’t been lucky enough to get off the streets,” she says. So Cat is back at the very shelters and food pantries that helped her while she was homeless. “I had to give back,” she says. “I had to.” 

Now every morning, Cat takes the bus to the Veterans Coming Home Center near Drury University, which doubles as a homeless day center. Along with several other volunteers, Cat helps prepare and serve breakfast and lunch to the crowd of people who come to the center to eat. When she talks about how grateful everyone here is to have a warm meal, it’s because she knows what it’s like to wonder where your next meal will come from. 

Each week, Cat catches a bus to deliver sandwiches to the homeless who frequent Bill’s Place—a drop-in center on C-Street.

Springfield’s Food Crisis

Sixteen percent of people in southwest Missouri are food insecure. In Greene County, that includes more than 5,200 kids under the age of 5. Like Cat, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. For decades, the main support system was a web of homeless shelters and food pantries that provided hot meals during the day and stocks of boxed and canned food people could take home. But after years of eating the high-sodium foods that make up the bulk of what you can find at a food pantry, that 16 percent has seen a rise in diet-related diseases including diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Springfield is now fighting back, and the new game plan might not be what you expect. The key players are farmers and gardeners, and the focus is on fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal: Get fresh food into pantries and homeless shelters so people like Cat don’t have to survive on canned food.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Poverty has gotten worse in Springfield. Between 2000 and 2010, poverty increased 121 percent, according to the 2014 Community Partnership Annual Report. That growth has taken a toll on area food pantries. Take Crosslines for example. It is one of the largest food pantries in Springfield, and in one month, it serves more than 2,000 meals. For pantries that rely on food donations, options are limited, and they work with what’s available. Most of the time that means canned and boxed items.

Even Ozarks Food Harvest, one of Missouri’s six Feeding America food banks, has seen a dramatic spike in need—a 68 percent increase over the last five years. The food bank, which provides food to pantries across the region, serves 28 counties and feeds more than 260,000 people a year. Nearly 40 percent of those are children. When the food bank opened at its new location six years ago, its storage area was a grid of metal shelves three rows high. Each shelf is packed with boxes and cans of food. 

With the rise in poverty, Ozarks Food Harvest had to add two more rows to each shelf. Most of the food on these shelves is donated from major companies including Walmart, General Mills, Associated Wholesale Grocers and Kraft. The rest comes from USDA government commodities (a supplemental food program supporting low-income elderly persons) and community food drives. But not all of the food here is canned. 

The push to get more fresh food into pantries is starting to pay off, and centers like OFH are now getting donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. This is where Glenda Miller comes in.

Canned Food Isn’t Enough

Miller is a public health clinical nurse specialist with CoxHealth. After realizing that a lot of her patients, a majority of whom live below the poverty line, weren’t able to get the healthful foods they needed, she decided to take action.

“Glenda’s question was, ‘Where do I send my patients who need a low-sodium diet?,’” says dietitian Tylane Garrett. Like Miller, Garrett’s pool of patients at The Kitchen Clinic were on strict dietary guidelines. But she kept running into a roadblock. They were eating a lot of canned green beans and high-sodium meats like beef jerky. “It was impossible to work with their foods,” she says. “I can put them on a diabetic plan, but we couldn’t work with the foods available at the pantries.”

That’s when Miller, Garrett and other community partners came up with the Healthy Food Wish List Miller now distributes to the 25 pantries she works with. “It’s really about helping pantries get word out about the types of foods they need,” she says. It’s also about being creative with how Springfield addresses food insecurity and using programs like community gardens to access fresh produce.

To help in providing fresh foods to the local homeless community, Christy Claybaker and Jim Blackwell work in a garden at the Ozarks Food Harvest.

A Community-Focused Solution

There are 12 community gardens around town, and more are planned for 2016. At the helm of this budding venture is Maile Auterson, president of Springfield Community Gardens. 

Auterson has long been praising the positive reach of community gardens. Just ask her about the Grant Beach garden. This was Auterson’s first community garden, and it’s become her shining star.

The garden’s location was selected based on United States Census Bureau data that showed a large number of single mothers living below the poverty line in the Grant Beach neighborhood. Once the garden beds were prepped and ready to go, plots sold out, and what happened next was unexpected. The crime rate in the area surrounding the garden dropped. “Because of the garden, people were outside more and were paying attention,” Auterson says. The garden has also rekindled relationships between neighbors, inspired kids to take an interest in food and even helped develop community leaders. “We can’t just have social services come in and help,” Auterson says. “If we’re going to alleviate poverty, it has to start with relationships.”

While this local garden is a step in the right direction, there’s still a huge need for fresh foods. Assisting in this need has become a goal of Christy Claybaker, who joined Ozarks Food Harvest a year ago in mid-April. Claybaker and her team turned to local farmers for help. “We thought there was probably a lot of extra produce that was going to waste,” Claybaker says. They were right.

“We keep talking about how we wish there were cooking classes that teach you how to budget your money and make meals even kids will eat.”—Nioka Pardini

To gather all that excess produce, Ozarks Food Harvest started a glean team—a group of volunteers that visits local farms and gardens to harvest crops. At the end of the growing season, the group gathered 20,000 pounds of fresh produce. Some of the key players in the garden program are Fassnight Creek Farm, Springfield Victory Garden and Springfield Community Gardens. Once word about the glean team got out, even backyard gardeners started planting extra rows of produce and brought the harvests into Ozarks Food Harvest’s walk-in donation center. “Last summer we had an additional 36,000 pounds of fresh produce donated just by people who had heard we were looking for fresh produce,” Claybaker says.

Thanks to one local farm—Ozarks Natural Foods—donating the use of their land, the Ozarks Food Harvest glean team now has a home base that includes 76 irrigated raised beds and a high tunnel to extend the growing season. The team has planted everything from spinach, kale, beets and potatoes to Swiss chard and green beans.

The meals served at the Veterans Coming Home Center are organized through The Gathering Friends—a not-for-profit with a dedicated core of volunteers.

A Challenge in the Kitchen

This increase in fresh produce is great, but there’s another issue: How do you teach people how to use and enjoy fresh foods?

“People in poverty are used to living off of boxed foods,” Claybaker says. “Some might even be living out of their cars, so they don’t have access to an oven or a fridge.” There are stories about young moms who didn’t realize they had to soak dried beans before cooking them. One time, Crosslines had frozen turkeys for people to take home, but the birds were untouched. People didn’t know how to prepare them. 

“We keep talking about how we wish there were cooking classes that teach you how to budget your money and make meals even kids will eat,” says Nioka Pardini, a young mother of three.

Nioka and her husband, Justin, live off of $700 a month in food stamps. Nioka would love to cook healthier meals for her family, but she needs their groceries to stretch, which means things like pasta, burgers and tacos are the go-to meals. 

Nioka brought home tilapia one night, but unsure how to prepare the fish, she cooked it on a George Foreman grill. The results were not appetizing. “It’s difficult to make healthy meals when we don’t know how to cook those meals and we don’t know how to make them appealing to the kids,” Nioka says.

Justin and Nioka Pardini are eager to learn how to cook and serve healthy meals to their family of five.

Cat understands this first-hand. Now that she’s volunteering in the kitchen and working with the Gathering Friends—a not-for-profit that organizes and donates each meal at the Veterans Coming Home Center, she is trying to incorporate more fresh or frozen vegetables into each day’s meal. If someone donates bananas for breakfast, she cuts them in half to make sure everyone in line gets one. “We got in a big bag of celery the other day, and I didn’t want it to go bad, so I cleaned it and froze it to make soups later,” she says. 

“Cat has become an integral part of these meals,” says Whitney Creehan, one of the group’s founding members. “She has another level of connection with these people. She lived in the shelters with them. She knows them.”

This is why Cat says she’s begging for more fresh food. She’s not asking. She’s begging. And thanks to community gardens and the glean team, it might finally be easier for Cat to get the fresh food she’s looking for.