Cristo Rey Community Center provides programming to overcome barriers to food access

"We must not look away from those who need more assistance than others," says Joe Garcia, director of Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing, Mich.

Joe Garcia

“Our Table” is a series of community roundtable discussions on various food topics ranging from health to sustainability. On November 16, 2017, Our Table kicked off with a panel discussion on food access held at Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing. This article is part two of a three-part series further exploring the views and work of the community leaders on the panel.

Joe Garcia is the director of Cristo Rey Community Center, a nonprofit basic-needs service center that provides access to food, medical care and counseling programs to neighbors in need in the Lansing area. Cristo Rey works to feed the hungry, protect and enrich children, engage and honor the elderly, and advocate for the most vulnerable community members.

Abby Harper is an educator in community food systems with Michigan State University Extension.

Harper: How do you define food access? What does food access mean to the work you do at Cristo Rey Community Center?

Garcia: Like most of us involved in creating avenues for food access, I define it in the following way: The availability of healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food options.

I will add that physical and mental health, community development and equity create barriers to access that do not have straightforward solutions.

Harper: While many folks would identify food security as you did – healthy and affordable foods – you also emphasized culturally appropriate foods. Why is providing clients with culturally appropriate food important?

Garcia: We want to encourage healthy eating, so we need to find ways to make that happen for folks. If we provide foods that people are familiar with and enjoy, they are more likely to cook for themselves. If healthier food is part of the equation, that’s going to have a positive impact.

Harper: When you spoke at “Our Table,” you mentioned how food access is more than just getting food – it’s also whether you have the safety nets in place to be able to focus on food. Can you explain more about some of those safety nets that you think are necessary to provide to ensure food security?

Garcia: Many of the people who use our services are considered the working poor; for this population there are life situations that can create financial hardships. If you are working minimum-wage jobs and living paycheck to paycheck, often food is what you do without to make ends meet. That’s why the services we offer provide such a critical safety net. Our food pantry can offset a grocery store trip. For a family who happens to live close to us, we can also offset the cost of a breakfast or lunch for them if they eat at our community kitchen.

We provide financial education as well. We teach families how to save money in their day-to-day activity, build budgets and seek safe banking. We also offer medical care and assistance for those who can’t afford their medical prescriptions.

Harper: What promising strategies do you see or employ that are helping to address food access and food insecurity?

Garcia: Our pantry has expanded service hours as compared to others pantries in the community. We operate a pantry of choice, we have more staff and volunteers on hand to serve community members efficiently. Pantry of choice means that clients can view items that are available to them, mirroring a grocery store experience. In a pantry of choice model, families can pick the food items they prefer. This is particularly great for refugees, immigrants and those with special diets. We also survey our clients to find out what they prefer, instead of relying on what we think they prefer – a detail that fosters a welcoming environment.

Harper: What areas do you feel aren’t being addressed or where there isn’t enough being done with respect to food access and insecurity?

Garcia: I feel for our elderly and disabled folks. A younger, healthier person without transportation can walk a little farther or carry a bag a little farther. The elderly and disabled without their own transportation, not so much. We have to find a way to take care of those who rely on our services the most.

We live in such a data-driven world, as such, we tend to track what will generate the larger data sets. The elderly and disabled aren’t going to give us the biggest numbers. However, they tend to be [the people] who need us the most. Our seniors, disabled, refugees and those who do not speak English have so many barriers in front of them. Limited transportation options combined with where one can access food creates food insecurity. MSU did a study a few years back that determined only 4 percent of Lansing’s population live within a 4-minute walk to healthier food, that’s a small percentage, and yes, most of us have access to a vehicle.

In most communities, one needs to have money and access to resources to offset the barriers that distance creates. Poor urban planning can create a food disparity.

From a policymaker standpoint, we need to address the needs of all our citizens. Nobody chooses to be poor, disabled, etc. We must not look away from those who need more assistance than others.

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