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When finding good food is difficult

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2012 - Every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., people begin lining up for the Joint Neighborhood Ministry's food pantry, two and a half hours before the doors open on McNair Avenue in south St. Louis. These men, women, families and children, who live in a culture bombarded with advertising for food, groceries and restaurants, might as well be living in a desert.

And they are – in a food desert. Some simply can't afford food. Others don't have a car and live too far from a grocery to walk. Even folks with a bus pass still must deal with a lot of walking, heavy bags and wiggling toddlers. Fast food, as unhealthy as it can be, also is beyond the reach of many people.

This weekend, the Missouri History Museum is sponsoring a Food Summit to explore the issues of food deserts, food justice, food access and how to transform concern into action.

The museum has put together two days of workshops to attract community activists and entrepreneurs alike, especially with the choice of actor Wendell Pierce to deliver the keynote presentation on food deserts at noon Saturday in Lee Auditorium.

Pierce, best known for his TV roles as well-dressed Detective Bunk Moreland on "The Wire" and scuffling trombone player Antoine Batiste on "Treme," has co-founded a grocery chain in his hometown of New Orleans to bring nutritious food to neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Alex Detrick, assistant director of community partnership in the museum's community education and events department, says "the novelty of including Pierce is that he had no professional reason to be compelled about food deserts. And no personal reason. He has the resources to have access to whatever food he chooses.

"But he made the decision that in New Orleans, his hometown, grocery stores were not part of the equation (in the rebuild after Katrina). So Sterling Farms (his grocery store) is a choice he made to give back to the community and to specifically address food deserts. … And I think that kind of direct action is really inspiring and motivating, and I think it will be interesting for the audience, too."

In the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine, Pierce explained why he took on the task.

“We're in a place where, especially in New Orleans, it was one of those things where if not now, when? If not me, who? It's so clear that we are still in a crisis mode when it comes to the recovery of the city,” he said. “It was inevitable that I had to get involved. And I wanted to be able to answer some young kid in the future who says, 'Mr. Pierce, what did you do, in New Orleans' darkest hours?' I wanted to have a proud answer.”

Detrick said the Food Summit, like previous programs in partnership with the St. Louis Beacon on race and class, is aimed at trying to solve complex problems by exploring alternate ways of getting at those topics. Its exhibit "About Hunger," which closed earlier this summer, gave people "the opportunity and the experience of being faced with those who experience hunger in America," she said.

"Our challenge at the Missouri History Museum is to localize the issue and then provide historical context and community connections for addressing it in our own area," she said. "We moved from the topic of food access to the topic of food deserts, where people have the resources to purchase items but still don't have the opportunity to have the best foods available."

Detrick said that it was "very clear that this month needed to be about action and engagement, that we've addressed people's empathy and compassion about the topic, but this is an opportunity to talk about policy and structure."

Workshop presenters will include St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, who will lead a session on "Food Justice & Voting," that will make a connection between a person's vote locally and access to food resources.

"Issues of the Slow Food Movement," led by Kelly Childs of Slow Food St. Louis, will deal with healthy eating and healthy choices, sustainability, local sourcing of food, and biodiversity. It will also be a good place to find healthy recipes, Detrick said.

"Slow food" is the answer to fast food. In food deserts, residents often find it easier to find a burger and fries than fresh or locally grown food. The slow food movement, Detrick said, "is returning to the roots of what you use, and it addresses the idea of food miles, making sure you're as local and organic and as rooted as possible, with the least amount of processing."

Other workshop topics will include "Food Access Inequality," "Food Policy and Public Health" and "Community Mobilization."

Pierce's keynote address will be free and open to the public. However, because of space limitations in the smaller meeting rooms, free registration is required for the workshops. Detrick urged people who are interested in the workshops to call 314-361-9017 as soon as possible to reserve a spot.

Workshop schedule

Saturday, Sept. 15

Noon: Keynote Presentation, with Wendell Pierce, Lee Auditorium

2 p.m.: Overcoming Financial Limitations, with Jamala Lott, Women of Light, Schnucks Learning Center
Food Access Inequality, with the National Conference for Community and Justice, Millstone Learning Center

3 p.m.: Issues of the Slow Food Movement with Kelly Childs of Slow Food St. Louis, Schnucks Learning Center

4 p.m.: Food Policy and Public Health, with professor Marjorie A. Sawicki of the department of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, Schnucks Learning Center
Closing the Grocery Gap, with David Sibert of Save-A-Lot food stores and Lucinda Perry of Supervalu Inc., AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room

Sunday, Sept. 16

2 p.m.: Food Access, with LuAnn Oros of Washington University's Hunger and Homelessness Community Service Office, Schnucks Learning Center

3 p.m.: Community Mobilization, with professor LaRhonda L. Wilsonof St. Louis  Community-College Florissant Valley, Schnucks Learning Center
Food Security and Land Security, with Molly Rockamann, a farmer and founding director of EarthDance Farms, AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room

4 p.m.: Food Justice & Voting, with St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, Schnucks Learning Center
Campus Eco-Garden, with biologist Mark Manteuffel, AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room