Column: Food security requires collaboration

Gerald Brisson

More than 700,000 people in southeast Michigan regularly do not get the meals they need; 47 percent of these households have at least one employed adult. More than 300,000 children receive at least one meal a day at school and return home to bare cupboards. Some children have no prospects for a weekend meal.

All this despite the best economy in a decade, historically low unemployment and new opportunities available in high-paying fields.

The measures we use to determine economic strength are woefully inadequate to reflect the reality for many of our citizens. Perhaps that is why President Trump’s budget called for a 50 percent reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with food boxes replacing cash benefits. It is not clear if, or by how much, this change will occur. It is foolish to “wait and see.”

SNAP is an integral form of support for low-income families, seniors and disabled individuals, but it does not answer important questions about consumers’ diet, health and other assistance they need beyond income. SNAP can be better, and changes to the program are inevitable.

To protect vulnerable people, we need to make SNAP improvements carefully. Food banks have done tremendous good with food box programs. However, we know food boxes bring significant challenges and do not accomplish what is best to achieve food security. They address quantity, but not food allergies, religious and cultural preferences or health concerns. Though tempting to revel in supply-side savings, food that is not eaten provides no economic, or nutritional, value.

“Client choice” models, where consumers can pick their own food, are better equipped to fulfill families’ preferences. Enabling choice reduces waste by up to 50 percent. The data makes it clear that to achieve the highest economic value for households, we must maintain healthy choice and dignity.

Further, we must focus on a multidimensional approach to improving the health, stability and empowerment of households, while increasing the economic value of food distribution. Sustainable solutions must include partners who benefit from eliminating hunger: health care, education and business.

One such partnership is “Henry’s Groceries.” Gleaners and Henry Ford Health System are piloting this program in which certain food-insecure patients receive healthy, nutritious food as part of their treatment plan. We believe this will benefit the individual, the health care provider and the community. Importantly we will prove food access leads to better health and lower health care costs, which leads to sustainable funding to help solve this persistent problem.

We must move toward a deeper understanding of community impact. With a more holistic view of food security, we can substantially reduce hunger. But business, government, health care, education and the entire community must solve the problem together.

Gerald Brisson is president and CEO of Gleaners Community Food Bank.