Build a strong local food economy. Support local farmers, and expand programs to include backyard gardens, community gardens, and other easy alternatives like hydroponic garden towers.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Cruz.
Judith Cruz is president and CEO of Treasure Coast Food Bank, the only food bank and the largest hunger relief organization on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Taking the reins of the food bank in 2009, Cruz has led the agency towards unprecedented growth to provide 41 million meals annually to more than 150,000 individuals struggling with hunger in the region. Cruz initiated the organization into the Feeding America network in 2012. Realizing the complex problem of hunger can’t be solved with food alone, Cruz has been committed to Treasure Coast Food Bank’s integration of a holistic approach to fighting hunger and feeding hope — utilizing strategic approaches that work deeply to address the inherent root causes of hunger across all programming and partnerships.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I believe life has a plan for us all.
After an extensive career in the for-profit corporate world, my husband and I relocated to Florida’s Treasure Coast in 1995. I was always inspired by the spirit and pride of the people living in the Treasure Coast community. It was here I developed a growing passion and desire to do more for my community. My life path led me to connect with local non-profits as a volunteer, board member, and eventually, a career change to the non-profit world in 2001.
This world has offered the challenges and rewards that make getting up for work each day a pleasure. And when it comes to leading Treasure Coast Food Bank and providing millions of meals each year to the community, it is truly my calling and has been my life plan all along.
In fact, joining the table in the fight against hunger was first cultivated in my childhood backyard garden in New Jersey. As a child, my family faced tough times. To help feed our family, my father, a farmer from Ohio, planted produce in our backyard. From April to November, the garden was flush with fresh produce and we always shared our abundance with neighbors.
Going to the grocery store was a different picture, as my family faced the same challenges and stigma that many food stamp recipients do today. My mother would insist on shopping several towns away so no one would recognize her. I never realized there was a problem and was always delighted to hand the food stamp booklet to the cashier to pay for our groceries. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of the devastating financial struggle my parents had faced and what it took to keep us together as a family in our home.
Because of that experience early on in life, I have an unwavering passion and drive to help families out there who find themselves facing similar struggles today. Now it is my hope that by creating a more holistic approach that truly supports long-term food security and financial wellbeing, we can work to stamp out the root causes of hunger and poverty.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful people — working as an advocate across the country on behalf of marginalized populations, serving on national councils and boards, and interacting with my peers and others through shared experiences. My most interesting experience was when I received a once in a lifetime invitation to attend the annual White House Christmas Party. It was an amazing opportunity to be allowed intimate access to the White House, sharing food and festivities with others from across the country. A privilege, for sure!
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
After leaving the corporate arena and launching myself fully into the non-profit sector, I began to see greater professional success. I think this related to committing myself to a purpose driven life of service to my community. Existing professional relationships were strengthened and in addition, I found myself meeting so many equally passionate individuals who have come to be a great inspiration in my life.
Seizing opportunities, keeping an open mind, and saying “YES!” have been key to my success. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn if you don’t put yourself out there and open to the universe and what it has in store for you and your life plan.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been very lucky to have numerous people in my life mentor, encourage, and support me. I carry a piece of them — and their valuable lessons — with me every day.
From the teacher in high school who taught me how important it was to properly present myself when speaking in public; to a supervisor in my first full-time position sharing the realities of a woman executive in a man’s world; and, more recently, a wonderful grant writer who helped me navigate programming in my early days at the Treasure Coast Food Bank — thank you to each of you for helping me become who I am today.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I offer a curious mixture of humility, passion for justice, and inquisitiveness.
This I know about myself — I highly value the concept of human dignity and much of my life’s work and public involvement has been in pursuit of achieving social justice for those whose human dignity has been stifled. In this respect I can be passionate, even radical, but also savvy enough to understand that real social change comes from working within our system with other leaders and stakeholders who represent diverse perspectives and bring unique energies to challenges.
I also believe I am no stranger to the hard work that is required to achieve real improvements in our society, and I never shy away from challenges that confront complex problems. My respect for human dignity has always provided a magical effect on the matter of bringing out the best in the people I have managed, collaborated with, or even confronted. By working together, I believe we have the power to create change that ultimately will have positive meaningful impact within our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that has long inspired and guided me is by Hubert Humphrey, the 38th vice president of the United States: “The moral test of our society is how it treats those in the dawn of life — the very young; those in the twilight of life — the very old; and those in the shadows of life — the hungry, disabled, and economically marginalized.”
I believe effective humanitarian leadership involves more than quietly toiling for the benefit of our marginalized brothers and sisters. Instead, it requires energized engagement with other leaders, a high comfort level and regular presence in forums where society’s policies are forged, and strong proficiencies in articulating constructive opinions to varied stakeholders interested in creating a peaceful, prosperous, sustainable, and just society.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
A food desert is a community or region where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food. “Healthy” and “affordable” are the keys here because in a designated food desert, there can still be food available to buy; however, it is typically at a corner store where options are limited and the offerings are not healthy (e.g., junk food or canned/frozen meals — all sold at a premium price). Rural communities and urban neighborhoods can both be considered food deserts.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Living in a food desert results in compounded negative impacts, especially for low-income and poverty-stricken households. When a family is struggling financially, every penny counts. Spending limited income on expensive, cheap foods becomes cyclical. But because that is the only thing available, these families have no other options. When you factor in transportation, if the household does not have a car (especially those living in a rural area where your nearest grocery store is more than an hour each way), they are essentially at the mercy of a corner store or small grocery mart that is within easy access.
Without access to healthy foods, people living in food deserts find themselves at a higher risk of diet-related conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. These health problems result in more expenses for the family, and the cycle continues.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Hunger is a symptom of a much bigger issue. Hunger is a manifestation of poverty. What we must ask ourselves is, in this land of plenty, why on earth do things like hunger, food deserts, and poverty exist? There are numerous and compounding factors that have led us to this crisis today.
After WWII, the average American began to sprawl away from urban centers and into suburban neighborhoods to forge their American dream. This sprawl, paired with an abundance of oil, resulted in reliance on a family automobile. No longer was it necessary to have stores on every neighborhood corner like they did in the cities, because households could drive — it was the epitome of freedom. However, with the continuation of suburban sprawl, once thriving city neighborhoods began to experience the pangs of the mass exodus.
We are still feeling those pangs today, as the families who have stayed behind face inflation, rising rents and property taxes, stagnant wages, and reduced purchasing power. When a struggling household has limited cash flow and no disposable income, the options for food come down to two factors: cheap and accessible. The latter is what perpetuates the presence of a food desert. Corner stores and fast food become the default option, especially when the nearest grocery store is miles away and requires a car or a two-hour bus ride each way.
For rural communities, the shift from self-sustaining agriculture to monolithic monocropping has been detrimental to countless working family farmers, as they endure poverty-like conditions. Nonagricultural rural households find themselves with little opportunity for employment, compounded by a weak education system, no public infrastructure, and limited transportation. Add on the fact that few grocery stores exist in these rural neighborhoods, and you have the perfect recipe for a food desert.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Treasure Coast Food Bank has taken great strides to help families living in food deserts.
Our Mobile Pantry program, which has been around since 2010, serves food desert communities across Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie counties. We operate more than 1,000 distributions a year, with each distribution bringing thousands of pounds of food so families can get stocked up with a variety of groceries — meat, dairy, produce, and pantry staples — all at no cost. We have dozens of community partners that we’ve strategically onboarded because of their location and service to food desert communities. These partners offer an array of services, including food pantries and congregate meals. We work with local schools so children can get food through our School Pantry or Backpack programs. Our food production kitchen prepares thousands of fresh and healthy meals each year for our After School Meals and Summer Food Service programs so families that rely on school meals don’t need to worry about how they are going to feed their children when they are out of school. The sites we partner with are primarily located in food desert areas of our communities. And, our newest program — Market Fresh on the Move — is a roving grocery store on wheels that goes out to food desert neighborhoods where residents can board the vehicle and shop for fresh produce and other healthy foods at an unbeatably low-price using SNAP benefits.
Treasure Coast Food Bank also works to address the underlying causes often associated with hunger — this is what we call our Ending Hunger Initiative, which provides workforce development, benefits enrollment, client case management, referrals to other community services, nutrition education, and more. By addressing an individual’s or household’s underlying struggles and helping them to rise above poverty and on a path towards self-sufficiency, then we are truly working to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
When we first launched our Mobile Pantry program, I had the pleasure of speaking with a retired woman as she was selecting various items from our farmers market style set-up.
I was carrying her basket and we chatted about the fresh produce selection, the different types of meats and cheeses she could select, and some of her favorite recipes. As we walked from table to table, she suddenly stopped and looked at the bakery section. I could see that her mood changed. Not sure of what happened, I was about to ask if everything was alright but before I could, she turned and asked, ever so seriously, if she could have a lemon meringue pie. I said, “Yes, of course,” and she began to cry. After a minute, she shared that her husband had passed away a few years before and every week they would buy a lemon meringue pie at the supermarket. The price of the pie at the market was 8.99 dollars (the food we provide is without cost and the pie was from the same supermarket). Since the death of her husband, she had struggled financially living on social security; only receiving 16.00 dollars per month in food stamp assistance and barely able to make ends meet. The lemon meringue pie reminded her of happier times with her husband of 42-years and how important the simple things, like a slice of pie, can become. She could not believe she could just take the pie home.
The emotional connection of breaking bread — or eating a slice of pie — with a friend or loved one is real. The memories attached are sometimes all we have left of our loved ones or of a happier time. Of course, I made sure that every so often a lemon meringue pie made its way to her apartment.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Build a strong local food economy. Support local farmers, and expand programs to include backyard gardens, community gardens, and other easy alternatives like hydroponic garden towers.
- Provide better public transportation. This is a major issue on the Treasure Coast. If you do not have a vehicle, getting around for everyday needs, like work, doctor appointments, and grocery shopping, is a huge problem.
- Provide life and employability skills to hard-pressed adults through vocational training programs. Investing in these types of programs results in a trained, skills-based workforce that is self-sufficient and able to earn a living wage. The proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” is tried and true here.
- Offer health and wellness education. Learning programs can make it easy for anyone to participate who may be struggling with health conditions that require lifestyle changes.
- Invest in equitable development. Our community deserves affordable housing and economic stability that foster opportunity and access for all people. This includes investment in underserved communities with grocery stores to replace convenience stores. This will support people who must travel for affordable, healthy food — which is a serious problem.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Feeding America, Global FoodBanking Network, and World Food Programme come to my mind. We all have a common goal of solving hunger and addressing food deserts, from the local to global level.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Yes, a simple law: Providing access to food as a basic human right — just as the air we breathe and the water we drink.
In terms of greater attainability, there are several laws that have been introduced this year that would significantly impact food security among children that we are encouraging our legislators to support.
The Stop Child Hunger Act of 2021 (S.1831/H.R.3519) establishes a permanent, nationwide electronic benefits transfer program for children during school closures and for other purposes. It provides families with funds on an EBT card to make up for meals missed at school due to disruptions.
The Summer Meals Act of 2021 (S. 1170/H.R.783) allows organizations to operate the Summer Food Service program all year to eliminate duplicative administrative processes and ensure organizations can focus on feeding kids. It reduces the area eligibility threshold from 50 percent of area children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to 40 percent, and would allow more community providers to offer meals in the summer. This would significantly improve participation in suburban and rural areas where children travel greater distances to get to school or in areas with greater socioeconomic diversity.
The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2021 (S. 2005) allows alternative delivery methods to provide food to children when schools are closed. This bill supports providing additional funds on EBT cards to families with children over the summer, while also allowing kids to consume meals off-site which would enable communities to adopt innovative program models to reach children who lack access to a summer feeding site. Various waivers in place allowed Summer Food Service program sites who lack the space to serve children meals in a congregate setting but have the capacity to act as a pick-up site for grab and go meals to children in their community. These waivers also allowed us to send our mobile grocery truck out into communities to deliver grab and go meals. This type of innovative program delivery would not be allowed to continue without the use of waivers if this legislation passes.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Smile. The power of a smile is transformative. Walking down the street, passing through the aisles of a grocery store, sitting at a stop light, sharing space with fellow humans throughout the day — I challenge everyone to catch the eye of a fellow human and just smile!
It’s free, it’s quick, and you have no idea the power that smile can have on another individual. They could be having the worst day of their life, and your smile is the sign that there is hope. Or, perhaps, someone is having the best day of their life, and your smile was just the icing on the cake where you shared in a moment of their joy.
Smiling is THE universal language. It is the ultimate act of paying it forward. Your one smile can be contagious, spreading even more smiles to help make the world a happier and healthier place.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Yes! Jose Andreas, chef and founder of World Central Kitchen.
Besides our mutual admiration for España, he started his nonprofit the same time I began at Treasure Coast Food Bank. Like Jose, I, too, am a staunch believer that food truly has the power to change the world. Because when we first address hunger, the other underlying struggles can work to be addressed.
I’ve long admired Jose’s reaction to immediate feeding assistance. Jose has been a trailblazer in defying the red tape — and getting food where it is needed and getting it there fast. He is also deeply committed to empowering the local food economy by working directly with food providers, restaurants, and others within the locale of a disaster site.
People need to eat today; people need to eat tomorrow — but sometimes bureaucracy can make that difficult. Jose, however, has continued to overcome the hurdles and be there to nourish people when it matters most.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.