Orange County, California is a beautiful region known for its stunning landscapes and affluent coastal communities. As the subject of many movies and TV shows featuring its luxurious lifestyles, world-famous beaches, and culinary scene, OC quickly became acquainted with wealth and luxury. While all is indeed true, the region harbors a hidden crisis that demands urgent attention: food insecurity.
Understanding Food Insecurity
Food insecurity refers to the “insufficient and inconsistent availability of an adequate quantity of food to sustain an active and healthy lifestyle for all individuals within a household” (Feeding America). This growing problem affects individuals and families across all socioeconomic backgrounds, often due to a combination of systemic, economic, and environmental factors. Although OC is renowned for its wealth and abundance, the disparity between communities is stark.
The California Association of Food Banks estimated that about 700,000 people in OC are food insecure. In March, federal funding added in response to the COVID-19 emergency ceased, decreasing the food aid provided through CalFresh for food-insecure families across CA. Amidst a post-pandemic economy where significant segments of society are still recovering financially, the abrupt reduction in food assistance --coupled with increased costs of groceries, housing, and gas-- can prove to be challenging for families and individuals who depend heavily on these benefits to secure a consistent source of nourishment and financial relief. Furthermore, food banks and pantries across OC have been seeing a general increase in people since COVID-19 with numbers growing from 249,000 to around 300,000, indicating that grocery prices in supermarkets are just not viable for 50,000 and more residents (Mcrea, 2023). These statistics do not include OC residents who lack transportation access to these food banks and pantries.
There are so many factors that affect one’s access to food including adequate childcare, issues of social injustice, poverty, homelessness, limited access to grocery stores, location, etc…
Arising from a network of governmental and societal shortcomings, food insecurity is an urgent concern that warrants attention from both the government and the public.
Food Insecurity and the Environment
With California facing a hunger crisis in 2023, one might think that we have a severe food shortage going around with absolutely none to spare for those who can’t afford it. However, did you know that food loss and waste (FLW) is one of the major contributors to our global greenhouse gas emissions? That’s right- according to Feeding America, more than a hundred billion pounds of food is thrown away every single year. So much food is being thrown away that FLW contributes 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually (alone in the U.S.). Reducing FLW by donating surplus meals and groceries to food insecure communities is certainly one way to reduce our waste in landfills.
Sustainable Solutions for Orange County
Community Gardens and Urban Farming
Community gardens and urban farming initiatives provide opportunities for individuals and families to grow their own food, fostering self-sufficiency and resilience. These initiatives can be implemented in underutilized spaces, such as vacant lots or rooftops, and can involve partnerships with local organizations, schools, and volunteers. These gardens are a great way to engage low-income communities in sustainable agriculture practices such as growing your own food. Although on a very small scale, these urban farms are a great way to provide nutritious food in food deserts where residents have extremely limited access to affordable healthy foods. Long Beach Organics (LBO) is a non-profit organization that operates 8 organic community gardens in the city limits of Long Beach. Since its founding in 1994, LBO addresses food insecurity by giving away fresh produce and conducting free cooking and gardening workshops for both its members and its community. Many users of the Long Beach State University’s school pantry, including me, have greatly benefited from the fresh produce grown by farmers at LBO community gardens.
Policy Reform and Advocacy
To address food insecurity comprehensively, it is essential to advocate for policy reform at the local, state, and national levels. Policies that promote access to affordable, nutritious food, support sustainable farming practices, and invest in community-based solutions are crucial.
One of these related policies is the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Program (UAIZ) which is a state program adopted by the California State Legislature in 2013. According to the City of Long Beach’s sustainability page, the UAIZ is a policy that encourages property owners to rent out their empty non-residential lots for urban farming or gardening. In return, they are provided with property tax incentives. Under this program, eligible property owners who engage in agreements with urban farmers or gardeners, who use their land for agriculture, can receive reduced property tax assessments based on the lower agricultural land value instead of the high market value (Long Beach Sustainability, 2023). To see how urban farmers are using this incentive to benefit their local communities and the environment, check out LBO’s website!
Another policy that helps alleviate food insecurity is Public Law 104-210, otherwise known as the “Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act”. Approved in 1996, this federal law helps both businesses and individuals by protecting them from liability when donating food and grocery items to non-profit organizations; protecting them from civil and criminal liability should the items donated in good faith ends up causing harm to the recipient; and standardizing the extent of donor liability across all 50 states (Feeding America). Even though this law was enacted decades ago, many businesses are still hesitant to donate leftover produce to food-insecure communities because they believe that they are liable for any potential harm their produce causes-- which has been proven to be false. This is why it is so important to bring awareness to such laws that can help increase food security and reduce unnecessary food waste.
So what can we do on a personal level? While partnering up with your local grocery stores and badgering your assembly person might seem intimidating to many, we can all start small by talking about food insecurity on social media, to friends and family or even colleagues at work; volunteering at food banks; donating some of your surplus food, produce or garden crops to local food banks; taking more time and initiative to learn more about policies like the Bill Emerson Act; supporting local food drives; and thanking food donors by expressing gratitude to businesses or individuals who donate food to charitable organizations. Giving thanks to food donors or any charitable organizations can be extremely uplifting and definitely encourages them to keep the good work going!