Community forum targets fresh food famine

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(Left to right) Elsa Higby, Brandon Thomas, Pat Rosenthal and Danielle Harrell circle around the Grow Youngstown informational board at Saturday’s food forum to discuss ways to bring locally grown food to the university and the Wick Park neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Gary Davenport.

A food forum was held Saturday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown to address the lack of nutritious foods available near campus and in the Wick Park neighborhood. 

Representatives from Grow Youngstown CSA, Lake-to-River Food Hub, Wick Park Neighborhood Association, Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and Youngstown State University Student Government Association attended the meeting.

The forum also focused on keeping food vendors in the community. 

“Students at YSU, and residents on the North Side of Youngstown, both want safe and convenient access to healthy foods. It’s our job to work together to make that happen,” said WPNA President Gary Davenport. 

Elsa Higby, from Grow Youngstown CSA, said “choosing to eat from our local food system means that we are keeping our food dollars local” and “eating seasonally,” as well as “eating foods that are fresh and use less energy to produce and get to market.”

“Will buying local food change the way we eat? Yes. Will it take more time? Yes. Will it affect our health? Yes,” Higby said. “Food is the basis of community within families and between neighbors. Fix the food system, and we will also fix our health, our economy and our community.”

SGA President Elyse Gessler said more than 100 students voiced complaints about campus food.

Though YSU sophomore Ashley Perri did not attend Saturday’s food forum, her concerns reflect those who did. 

“The food on campus is so unhealthy, and any attempt they make to make it healthy fails,” Perri said. “We need healthy options and fresh food; our bodies need it. I grew up eating organic food, and it’s hard to find organic food here.” 

Several students have contacted Carrie Clyde, YSU’s wellness coordinator, regarding the lack of nutritious eating options on campus.

But it’s an issue that eludes the university.

“There’s not a whole lot of healthy options,” Clyde said. She advises students to “pack a lunch” to supplement the existing choices. 

She added that Sodexo, the university’s food service, has been trying “different things, especially for vegetarians.”

“We are continuously adding [options],” said Tom Totterdale, general manager of dining services. “We do have vegan and vegetarian options.”

But having more options comes at a cost. 

“People are continuously saying that there are no healthy options, but they’re not buying them,” said Edward Krol, dining services’ executive chef. 

Still, Higby and other officials at the forum said the university and the city could benefit financially and physically from local foods.

“Youngstown State University has an excellent opportunity to support the local economy by focusing the buying power of their dining services on locally grown and produced food,” Higby said. 

Krol said dining services’ produce is purchased from “local area farms.”

“We have a pretty solid plan in place, but we are always looking for ideas and healthier options,” Krol said.

While the university works to address student concerns, area residents live in what concerned locals and community organizers, like Brandon Thomas, call a “food desert.” 

Thomas, an organizer with the MVOC, defined a food desert as an area that lacks access to food, typically within a half-mile from occupied homes. Thomas also said living in a food desert can be problematic for families who lack transportation or rely on public transit. 

Area residents don’t have a lot of food options, making healthful food difficult to obtain, Thomas said.