Smart Investment: Food Security in the Valley

Nonprofits, corporations and individuals tackle food insecurity in the Valley.

Whether you lead a gluten-free, vegan lifestyle or just occasionally watch what you eat, many people have food choices and access to healthy food options. This is not the case for all residents of the Valley. Some of our neighbors live in what are called "food deserts."

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources resulting from factors related to distance and income. Food deserts can include communities that are located some distance away from access points to healthy foods or in neighborhoods where nutritious food choices are available but not affordable based on income levels of residents nearby. Both examples are contributing factors to food insecurity.

There is a negative correlation between food insecurity and overall well-being. According to the 2016 Valley Community Index, some residents in the Valley said they could not afford food for themselves or their families within the past year. The 12 percent of adults who reported experiencing food insecurity suffered from a significantly lower level of well-being than their income alone would predict. Further correlations to mental health and overall well-being can be made in relation to food insecurity. More than 30 percent of food insecure adults reported feeling depressed during the past year, indicating that food insecurity is a multi-faceted challenge.

One way businesses and individuals in the Valley have helped address and raise awareness about food insecurity is with the construction of Harvest House. Driven by Valley United Way's Corporate Volunteer Council, a 400 square-foot house is constructed of walls made of shelves. The shelves are then stocked with more than 100,000 donated nonperishable food items and distributed to food banks in the Valley. Since the first event in 2005, six Harvest Houses have been built, once every other year, with the next scheduled to be constructed in September of 2017.

"In 2005, the food lasted for three months. By 2013, the food was distributed within three weeks," says Vice President of Community Engagement, Patricia Tarasovic, who leads the Volunteer Action Center at Valley United Way. "The outcomes from this project, supported by the recent Community Index data, make it very clear that we do have a food insecurity issue here in the Valley, which we are actively taking steps to address."

This is why the Valley Council for Health and Human Services created the Food Security Task Force in 2014, co-chaired byTarasovic along with David Morgan, President/CEO of TEAM, Inc.

"Addressing food-need is a complex issue, including systemic challenges and opportunities to long-term positive outcomes," Morgan says. "This task force adds immense value to the long-term collective impact efforts in addressing food insecurity and overall household well-being throughout our Valley communities."

Many children and families of low-income households risk developing chronic health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity as a result of inexpensive high-sodium,carbohydrate-rich diets. The task force is charged with strengthening food security in the region by partnering with local organizations that share this goal, developing and supporting a Valley food bank network, and creating a long-term strategic plan.

"If you look at the number of free and reduced price meals (FRPM) in the 2016 Valley Community Index, more than 60 percent of Ansonia's children and over 50 percent of Derby's require this assistance," says Valley United Way President & COO, Sharon Gibson Ellis. "As we have seen in our ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report, this typically means not a lot of money is flowing into the household and families may be making difficult decisions about food, utilities, or healthcare."

As such, organizations like Valley United Way are introducing community gardens to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables with the "Grow Your Own" program. Started in 2014, this food security and health program is designed to engage neighborhood residents to actively participate in selecting, planting, maintaining, harvesting, and preserving fresh produce. These gardens are located at Pine Lot Park, Gatison Park and Irving School.

Community garden projects were launched in Ansonia and Derby in response to the number of children on FRPM programs. Other Valley towns have far fewer students eligible for school meal assistance.

The only nutritional meal some students receive is during the school day, which can make the summer months especially difficult. Fortunately, for those needing assistance, a summer food program was implemented by the USDA and is administered by the Bureau of Health and Nutrition Services at the Connecticut Department of Education. Students under 18 (21 if disabled) are encouraged to get a free meal at specific sites no matter their family's income or residency. The Connecticut Food Bank, End Hunger Connecticut, and the Valley school systems have open and registration-based summer meal programs that are updated with new information annually.

The VITAHLS program is additionally working to create healthy lifestyles for students. An acronym for Valley Initiative to Advance Health & Learning in Schools, this effort is
a partnership between the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, Griffin Hospital, the Naugatuck Valley school districts and other community partners. VITAHLS promotes healthy lifestyle choices, obesity prevention activities, and nutritional education for Valley students from pre-K to grade 12. In recent years, the Naugatuck Valley Health District, Naugatuck Public Schools, Massaro Community Farm, ShopRite Supermarket and Valley YMCA have also joined the VITAHLS partnership.

More so than ever before, a growing number of Valley nonprofits, corporations, and individuals are coming to the table to ensure proper nutrition and basic access to food are an option on everyone's menu.