Working Together to Improve Our Food System, Access to Healthier Foods

Volunteers distribute fresh produce and other foods at a food pantry.

Having access to fresh, healthy foods is critical to good health. Unfortunately, obstacles such as cost and inadequate transportation prevent many Northern Virginia residents—particularly those in low-income communities—from accessing healthy food options. In Alexandria, as many as one in five residents struggles to make ends meet, and in Arlington County, as many as 42 percent of residents experience food hardship, or irregular access to affordable, healthy meals.

In response, the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF) has made it a priority to collaborate with organizations working to improve the food system and make healthy food options more readily available, especially in communities where access is a challenge. In 2014, the Foundation participated in a working group spearheaded by the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network (A-COAN) to take a closer look at food hardship in the city. The committee’s report, Toward an End to Hunger in Alexandria, shed light on barriers to food access and provided recommendations for addressing hunger in the community.

“We hope this report will be a catalyst for conversations about how we, as a community, can ensure that everyone who lives in Alexandria has access to healthy, nutritious food,” said Tricia Rodgers, former A-COAN Co-Chair and Northern Virginia Health Foundation Program Officer. Already, the faith-based community has stepped forward. On a “Commitment Weekend ” last fall, members of the faith community launched Hunger Free Alexandria and, at 14 different congregations across the city, announced practical commitments they would take on to help communities and residents in need.

In 2014, the Foundation also served on the NOVA Food Coalition, a collective of non-profits, local government agencies, and other community leaders, which work together to support sustainable and equitable food systems. Through the Coalition’s quarterly roundtable meetings, coalition members share best practices on how to broaden food services to a larger part of the population.

Looking ahead, the Foundation will expand its collaborations with other organizations working to address food hardship. In Fairfax County, NVHF is part of Partnership for Healthier Fairfax, a community of stakeholders working to establish a new food council that will oversee the improvement and expansion of the county’s food system. In addition, the food pantry working group of the Partnership collaborated with the Fairfax Food Providers Network to develop a brochure to help consumers select healthier goods to donate.

Ms. Rodgers is also co-chairing the FitArlington Healthy Community Action Team. Its food access committee is looking at increasing usage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps) at farmers’ markets and exploring the feasibility of working with local retail stores to ensure that healthier food options are sold near local parks and recreation centers.

Photo Credit: Natalie Maynor via Flickr and Street Sense via Flickr