Summit Addresses Food Security Issues in the Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Addressing the food security issues that plague the Mahoning Valley must involve an examination of the systems in place that contribute to the challenges.

That was a focus Wednesday at a Food Security Summit presented by the Healthy Food Retail Action Team of the Healthy Community Partnership Mahoning Valley.  

“We are bringing together different people who work in different areas of food access all across the Valley,” said Robin Perry, partnership network administrator.

The daylong summit was at the main branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County. The Healthy Food Partnership, with support from the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, focuses on healthy food retail, active transportation and parks and green spaces.

The participants’ “goal is to start thinking about our food system at the system level so that we can come together so we can create a healthier community together,” Perry said.

Chris Thompson, president of Civic Collaboration Consultants in Strongsville, was the keynote speaker for the event.

Chris Thompson, president of Civic Collaboration Consultants in Strongsville, was the keynote speaker at the Food Security Summit on Wednesday.

Thompson focused on the idea of how to improve the food system in the Valley, which includes all of the players who interact to put food on people’s tables. That’s farmers, grocery stores, consumers, shipping companies and sellers.

“To a certain degree, we might say that what the system is producing right now is too many people who are unhealthy, too many people who are obese, too many people suffering from diabetes,” he said. “So what are the conditions that are creating those outcomes?”

People who attended the summit range from local farmers to educators to public service and health care agencies.

“One of the reasons they’re here is they’re not satisfied with the availability of healthy food, the quality of food, the cost of food – those kinds of issues,” Thompson said. “We’ve heard the term food desert, food apartheid. Too many communities, too many parts of the Valley don’t have enough access to healthy, quality food.”

Organizations can work on projects to change that, but they also have to work on the overall system that shapes access to quality food, Thompson said.

“It’s not just projects. There are more systemic issues, and my job is to help them think about, what are those systemic issues and how do we alter them?” he said.

It requires examining the policies, programs, projects and activities in place. But it also demands looking at people’s beliefs, he said.

Access to healthier foods at community stores in Valley neighborhoods is one area that’s improving through the work the Healthy Food Retail Action Team is doing, Thompson said. 

Perry said part of the challenge is that, historically, a lot of public health programming is individual focused, with many people working in silos. 

“That’s kind of the reason that coalitions like the Healthy Community Partnership are created so that different organizations and individuals and residents can come together to think of solutions at a higher level like at the systems level,” she said.

Much of the problem with food security in the Mahoning Valley is access, she said, listing the lack of grocery stores in Youngstown and Warren as examples. Affordability is also an issue. Even if someone has a car to get to a grocery store in a nearby community, healthy food may be too expensive for them, Perry said.

The summit is one step in addressing food security issues.

“We’re definitely not looking to solve all of the system issues that have been in food access here in the Valley for a long time today,” Perry said. “We’re just hoping that people can take away some actionable things so that we can come together in the future … so that we can make those incremental changes to lead to a system that is better for the community overall in the future.”  

Pictured at top: Robin Perry, network administrator at the Healthy Community Partnership Mahoning Valley, and Chris Thompson, president of Civic Collaboration Consultants in Strongsville.

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