Having access to enough food, something that feels like a norm to many is an uncertain reality for a lot of Nebraska households.
A study done in 2019 by Place Matters, a Community Health Endowment program revealed that 12.5% of Lincoln residents live in poverty and face food insecurity. This means these residents lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life because of limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
This information sparked a partnership between the Food Bank of Lincoln and Community Action, a non-profit community-based organization that serves individuals living in poverty. The Healthy Food Access program was created, a project with the goal to increase access to healthy foods in Lincoln.
“There is not a single zip code that is unaffected by hunger and food insecurity,” said Michaella Kumke, the Food Bank of Lincoln’s president and CEO.
According to reports from the Salvation Army, 14% of Lincoln residents are affected by the lack of food. Kumke said food insecurity concerns are concealed in the Lincoln community but have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Here in Lincoln, where we are a caring community, a generous and active community, it’s really easy to not see these disparities,” Kumke said. “I think the pandemic magnified how many people, how many neighbors really are living close to or on the edge.”
Lisa Janssen, program administrator of The Gathering Place, a Lincoln soup kitchen, said the high cost of living and the low living wage is one of the biggest reasons behind food insecurity.
“If we would increase the minimum wage, I think we would see a decrease in food-insecure communities,” Janssen said. “We see a lot of people that are employed, and some of them are working one, two, three jobs, and they’re still struggling.”
The lack of access to resources such as healthy food, healthcare and housing, are also other systemic causes of food insecurity, Kumke said.
“These systems are designed first and foremost, to support white males who are middle class or wealthier,” Kumke said. “I think it’s an imbalance of a system structure and of resources.”
The Healthy Food Access program was designed to increase access to healthy foods in Lincoln, particularly for children living in the city’s highest-needs neighborhoods.
One way the program works on these goals is through the Lincoln Fresh truck, a mobile food truck that visits Lincoln’s highest-need neighborhoods and distributes free fresh produce during the spring and summer.
Lincoln also has a wide variety of other resources available, such as food pantries and distribution sites, as well as backpack programs in public schools that send children home with food for the weekend.
Kumke and Janssen both gave the city an eight out of 10 for its response and resources dedicated to helping the food insecurity community.
“I think Lincoln is doing pretty well,” Janssen said. “A lot of people that come here say if you go hungry in Lincoln, it’s because you’re not trying very hard to find a solution.”
Kumke and Janssen both agreed Lincoln has room for improvement, especially in recognizing and accepting that there is a food-insecure community that needs help.
“We are a good community, but we need to close that gap to get to a perfect 10,” Kumke said. “I think it’s about embracing the diversity of the community and understanding that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s the strength that makes our community better.”