flint, food, water

Ever since the Flint water crisis began, lead poisoning has been a top news story in national media. Most know the story of Flint’s water crisis by now. Flint was assigned an emergency manager that eliminated most democratic checks and balances in the city, including the power of the city council and mayor. The emergency manager then decided to change Flint’s water source. Changing the water source caused an erosion in the water pipes throughout the city, which in turn, caused the lead in the pipes to contaminate the water. Flint residents have been unable to drink water out of their pipes for the past two years.

Many people have asked what they can do to help the people of Flint. And rightfully, the top response has been ‘send water or money for water.’ But as the crisis of water access is being dealt with, more people are starting to wonder about how to help people suffering from poisoning. While the effects of lead poisoning are permanent, Doctor Hanna-Attisha, the doctor that wrote the report that made the increase in lead poisoning levels major news, has repeatedly pointed out that nutritious food is an excellent way to minimize the impact that lead poisoning can have on a body.

In food insecure regions that deal with high poverty, people very often count on high calorie/low nutrition food like fast food or gas station food to feed themselves. While the food is low in nutritional quality, the high calorie count can make living on one meal a day much easier. And very often the cheap cost of the food means that one meal a day can be flipped into two or even three meals. The problem is that those low nutrition foods often lead to some of the very same problems that lead poisoning does; short attention span, hyper activity, depression and lethargy, and even potential criminality.

So a high quality nutritious food program that is available to entire community would be an excellent way to not only feed people, but potentially minimize the effects of lead poisoning. And yet, there’s been very little conversation and even less action taken towards improving and increasing Flint’s access to nutritious food.

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, petitioned the Federal government to increase it’s age limits on the  Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program from 5 years to 10 years. WIC is a supplemental food program that makes food available to low income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women and their children.

Snyder’s petition was rejected almost immediately by the Feds, causing a bit of an outrage from the Snyder camp. Snyder released a statement where he stated that the Federal Government wasn’t acting like ‘much of a partner’ on the problems of Flint, and that in fact, because the Feds were a part of the problem they had a responsibility to be a part of the ‘solution.’

And yet, Snyder’s position on WIC doesn’t really make much sense when you dig deeper. WIC is a program designed to eliminate health problems women face when they are pregnant or breastfeeding without adequate nutrition. Thus, WIC is a program that can only be accessed by pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding women and their children. Grandparents, fathers, women without children, etc are ineligible for the program. Lead poisoning in Flint certainly hits young people very hard, but the entire population was poisoned. Increasing the WIC age will do next to nothing for anybody who is not pregnant or parenting young children.

The interesting thing is that welfare is a food distribution system set in place that is capable of reaching multiple populations of people, and is proven to effectively challenge food insecurity. But one of the very first things Snyder did when he got into office was to enforce a 48 month life time limit on cash assistance. Eventually he also signed legislation requiring students attend school or risk losing family benefits and mandatory drug testing.

When Snyder’s cash assistance restrictions were put in place, the three counties that saw the most people fall off the roles were Wayne (which is home to Detroit), Kent (Grand Rapids), and yes, Genesse (Flint). Getting people back on the roles would be something that Michigan legislature could easily do, seeing as Michigan legislature were the ones who took everybody off. The federal limit on cash assistance is 60 months.

But instead of immediately repealing the 48 month limit Snyder volunteered at a food pantry for a half hour and held an exclusive birthday party for his wife that included security, blacked out windows and an extremely expensive cake. It’s hard not to wonder what kind of a ‘partner’ Snyder is being with this sort of ‘effort.’

As discouraging as Snyder’s actions have been during this crisis, there have been small rays of hope. Dr. Hanna-Attisha has been a leader in organizing a research/medical response to the lead crisis, including putting together free testing clinics and and gathering/tracking data on lead exposed infants. But she also is working on nutrition as part of the program she is directing, the Pediatric Public Health Initiative (PPHI). She set up her clinic above the local farmer’s market that accepts SNAP (the food assistance part of welfare) and has cooking classes that demonstrate how to cook meals with the food bought at the market. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is quoted as saying, “We give out nutrition prescriptions (at the clinic).”

Michigan State University, the university that is sponsoring Dr Hanna-Attisha’s work, has also been instrumental in making educational resources available. This book of recipes is filled tasty kid friendly recipes that use ingredients that are targeted at improving the quality of a body’s response to lead poisoning. The booklet also explains what foods to look for and what foods are going to be most beneficial to helping to fight lead poisoning. There are multiple other resources at their website set up to address lead poisoning.

edible flint, an organization in Flint that focuses on helping Flint residents grow healthy and accessible food, is focusing on what the water crisis means to food growers in Flint. If you’re using contaminated water, it can affect the food you grow and how healthy it is for those consuming it. Food growers recognize this and are studying the situation and working to develop meaningful responses. This work is ongoing and deeply necessary.

The Flint water crisis has the possibility of reinventing how we understand food in the United States. Is food insecurity a punishment we dole out to people that weren’t good enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Or is food a human right that we ensure everyone has enough of because of the way corporations have violated our environment? We need fresh nutritious ideas about food and justice, but we need those ideas to focus on meeting the needs of all communities. Where we go from here is up to us.