By Alison Cohen, WhyHunger’s Senior Director of Programs. This post first appeared on EcoWatch.

Krishnappa standing on the edge of his food forest sharing his experiential knowledge of Zero Budget Natural Farming with local farmers. Photo credit: WhyHunger

Krishnappa standing on the edge of his food forest sharing his experiential knowledge of Zero Budget Natural Farming with local farmers. Photo credit: WhyHunger

It is late-July. A car drops us off at the edge of a patchwork of agricultural fields on the outskirts of Mysore in a village called Bannur in the South Indian State of Karnataka. Despite the oppressive heat, the women clad in colorful saris, and the sacred cows—more plentiful than potholes—artfully dodged by cars and motorbikes every 20 yards or so along the road, I am reminded of the Midwest.

No matter that there is no corn or soybean in sight and that parcels measure 5 acres instead of 400. It’s the neatly defined fields in perfect rectangles that resemble what you see when you fly over Iowa. The field adjacent to the road where the car left us boasts a weed-free plantation of banana trees, the one next to it is lined with straight rows of sugar cane and the one just across the walking path that traverses the fields is recently sown with rice.

We walk a good half mile to the farm we’re meant to visit. Leading the way are seven men on motor bikes ranging in age from 30 to 60, wearing flip flops and fabric the size of table cloths wrapped around their waists in typical farmer garb, at least two of them are boasting bright green scarves thrown over their shoulders, symbolic of the social movement they’re connected to that promotes “natural farming.”

We’re headed to Krishnappa’s farm, a member of this green-scarf social movement referred to as KRRS, or the Karnataka Rayja Raitha Sangha. Founded in 1980, this peasant farmers’ movement is rooted in Gandhi’s philosophy of swadeshi, or home economy, meaning that political and economic power can only be just when it is governed by democratic assemblies organized at the village level. KRRS believes that by relying on a localized economy (local production and consumption) for village needs, everyone has the opportunity and the resources to work and create a dignified life.

As we approach the edge of Krishnappa’s 5-acre farm, the outward appearance is strikingly distinct from his neighbors’ parcels. It seems to be overgrown by weeds and unruly plants of varying heights defending their access to sun and water. The parcel looks like an island of chaos floating next to the neat rows of plantings all around us, waiting stoically and well-behaved on scorched earth for the rains to come. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Within minutes of stepping onto Krishnappa’s land, we become privy to an intricately designed coupling of various food-producing plants and intercroppings that bloom into a veritable food forest—the healthiest and most productive land we’ve seen in India during our short sojourn.

Krishnappa, the proverbial “poster child” of Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), has been growing food according to this straightforward yet scientifically-based method for 15 years. KRRS credits Zero-Budget Natural Farming from saving Krishnappa from the fate of so many other farmers that were featured on the front page of the The India Times almost daily during the time we were in Karnataka. These farmers had tragically succumbed to suicide in the face of unrelenting debt. Farmers in India have been forced to take on high-interest rate loans to purchase seeds and chemical inputs from banks that are profiting from agribusinesses’ strategy of dictating the methods necessary to produce cash crops such as rice and sugar cane. Like the more than 3,000 farmers in India who have committed suicide in the past three years (50 suicides in 15 days in July of this year in the state of Karnataka alone) Krishnappa was feeling trapped and impotent, a victim to the whims of the loan sharks and unpredictable markets that either paid nothing or too little to make a dent in debt mounting season after season, let alone feed his family.

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This spotlight is a feature on WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Community Servings, Boston, MA. Story and pictures by David Hanson.

Community Servings (CS) has humble beginnings as a Jewish outreach organization responding to AIDS in the late ’80s. To this day, but especially early during the AIDS epidemic, malnutrition was a major cause of death. The simple act of feeding people properly who were diagnosed HIV+ could keep them alive. Food was a viable form of medicine. Community Servings has evolved to develop more diverse eligibility criteria, drawing clients from over 200 referral partners. It now provides medically tailored meal services to homebound families and individuals with acute life-threatening illness. Roughly 1000 individuals receive packages of five meals per week. It’s not just any healthy food. Community Servings has learned the importance of preparing beautiful, colorful, fragrant food that appeals to people who lack an appetite due to chronic illness.

Crafting such a complex menu falls on the shoulders of Chef Kevin Conner. Conner has almost two decades of experience in kitchens, including as a culinary arts professor and executive chef at the Federal Reserve. When Connor was 16 he lost his mother to diabetes so he knows how food can help and harm a body.

“With this job, the people don’t just come into the restaurant, eat the meal, then forget about it.” Connor says. “The five meals we’re delivering weekly touch their hearts and souls. We try to give the clients comfortable, familiar meals. We’re always adapting the menu. For instance, we might make a meatloaf, but we have to be careful with ketchup (sugar) for diabetics so we come up with recipes for a tasty, ketchup-free meatloaf.”

community servingsConnor works closely with Community Serving’s nutrition department to understand the best ingredients for the clients’ diverse needs. Connor is currently developing a cookbook with over 100 meals tailored to specific diets, a veritable pharmaceutical catalog of food is medicine. Everything is scratch-made to control preservatives, especially sodium and sugar. The kitchen operation is big, fast, mechanized and efficient. Because of clients’ weakened immune systems, extra care must be taken to remain 100% free of bacteria, especially since a large chunk of kitchen prep work is done by volunteer groups (65,000 volunteer hours/year).

“We (Community Servings) consider ourselves to be essential role players in the creative treatment of low-income individuals,” says Jean Terranova, director of Food and Health Policy at Community Servings. “We can make the case to health care providers that our meals range around $25 per day per patient while a hospital bed costs around $2500 per day. If healthy, appropriate food can keep those high-frequency patients from returning to the hospital, which Medicaid might not pay for, then that’s a big savings for hospitals and a big opportunity for us and others in our field.”

There is nothing new to the idea that poor nutrition leads to chronic long-term illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Healthy eating has long proven to be one of the most effective preventative measures, although access to healthy food remains a major challenge in many low-income communities. But what about food’s role in the treatment of sick patients? What about looking at food is medicine? Community Servings has been trying to fill that need, on a small scale, for decades. Now there’s hope that new policies could shift the movement into higher gear. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has opened the door to a vigorous conversation about new strategies for bringing together food and nutrition security providers to the table with hospitals and insurers.

Since 1969, federal standards have mandated that non-profit hospitals provide community benefits in order to maintain tax-exempt status. The majority of “community benefits” covered the cost of care for uninsured or underinsured patients. The ACA aims to have two profound effects on that model. For one, the ACA will vastly reduce the number of uninsured Americans, many of whom were without coverage due to pre-existing conditions. So there will be less need to allocate community benefit funds to cover costs of uninsured patient care. Secondly, the ACA better articulates the community benefit obligations for non-profit accountable care organizations (ACO), groups of doctors, hospitals and other health care organizations that voluntarily coalesce to give coordinated care to Medicare patients.

Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.

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Hunger and Health Summit InterviewsThis May, Nourish Network for the Right to Food hosted the 2015 Health and Hunger Summit. WhyHunger sat down with summit participants Stephanie Solomon, Director of Education and Outreach at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, and Alyssa Wassung, Director of Policy and Planning at God’s Love We Deliver, to talk about hunger, health, and the right to food.

WhyHunger: What does the right to food mean to you?

Alyssa: I think that it all goes back to the fact that we share a planet and the planet is a source of food – and by virtue of entering the human race you have a right to part of that planet and to the food it produces and a right to exist in the community of humans. I think that we can easily complicate that – through economics, through access, through demographics – but when you break it down it’s a pretty basic equation.

Stephanie: I was excited to learn about the right to food on this national and international scale. As an organization, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard has always acted under the idea that everybody regardless of their situation deserves access to healthy food, and then the services bringing food assistance should respect and uphold the dignity of all involved.

WhyHunger: What is the importance of working at the intersection between hunger and health?

Alyssa: Oh I think they’re absolutely inextricable. I don’t think anybody can unweave those two strands, especially when you think of food as just like any other chemical we put into our bodies. For me food is medicine – it’s our most basic medicine, it’s something we medicate ourselves with every day.

Stephanie: I don’t think it’s possible to work in either the hunger movement or in healthcare without addressing the other. That intersection needs to be central to all the work we we do – what we eat, what people are saying today at God’s Love We Deliver – food is medicine. Our health and what we eat or don’t eat impact each other on such a huge scale. So it was nice to be in a space where we were talking frankly about the structures that create more and more challenges between experiencing hunger and having access to quality food – and what that means for your overall health.

Hunger and Health Summit Interviews

WhyHunger: What kind of support does your organization need to continue its work?

Stephanie: Events like this – where we get to come together and talk with other organizations and learn from what they’re doing. A lot of these organizations are addressing health disparities through the food work that they do, in a much more direct way then we are. So it’s really exciting to see what other organizations are doing, and to have this opportunity to network and collaborate… It’s important for us not to be isolated in our own organizations and communities, and to see where there’s room to grow and build health and hunger connections.

WhyHunger: What is the value of coming together at events like today?

Alyssa: It’s been really inspiring to see what other people are doing, and be reminded of why I do this work and why I love it so much and of the opportunities and the challenges we all face together. Overall, my greatest hope for the hunger and health worlds is that they learn how to hold hands. That we’re not separated by fragmented funding streams or our own agendas or our own work in front of our faces, but are able to see how collaboration can improve the safety net we have created and in some ways make sure that people don’t need that safety net – that we change up the structure so that we’re not dealing with the same problems in my daughter’s generation.

Hunger and Health Summit Interviews

For more information, see:

Mother Hubbard’s Cupboardhttp://mhcfoodpantry.org

 God’s Love We Deliverhttps://www.glwd.org

Learn more about the Hunger and Health Summit here: http://blog.whyhunger.org/2015/07/building-a-community-of-practice-around-hunger-and-health/

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Máximo Cangá

This spotlight is a feature in a series of the USDA Community Food Project Competitive Grant Program (CFP) completed for WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Máximo Cangá Castillo, farmer and fisherman in San Lorenzo, Ecuador. Story and pictures by Andrianna Natsoulas.

Máximo Cangá Castillo active with local, national and grassroots organizations. He is a leader in his community and has fought against Columbian palm plantation owners and the invasion of shrimp farms. Máximo is active with the National Coordination for the Defense of the Mangrove Ecosystem.

San Lorenzo is in the northern Ecuadorian state of Esmeraldas on the Pacific coast. There, the farmers and fishermen face a daily barrage of assaults –land grabs, resource grabs, and murder.

Máximo CangáSan Lorenzo, just a stone’s throw from the Colombian border, is filled with drug lords, Colombian paramilitary, members of FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and residents of the community. Colombian palm plantation owners enter the state and seize farms. Drug lords establish cocaine labs in the jungles of the tropical coastal forests – the mangroves. Mangroves are bulldozed to make way for shrimp farms. Meanwhile, Monsanto lures farmers to work for them by offering free seeds. All the products are for export.

Máximo Cangá, a tall, proud, well-respected member of the community has experienced it all. At one time, he had a farm that was four hectares (nearly 10 acres). Suddenly, all the surrounding farms were sold to the Medellin Mafia of Colombia. But, Máximo refused to sell his land. The Mafia told him, “The farm belongs to us. You have to go get the money for your farm.” He told them, “But, my land is not for sale.” “Too bad, that is your problem,” they said. In response, Máximo filed a complaint with Plan Ecuador and to other authorities.

That complaint almost killed Máximo. Two hours after he filed the compliant, some men went to his house, but only his wife and children where there. Máximo was not. He maintains that if he had been, then he would have disappeared, which means, “They put you in a car and take you away. If you are lucky, your body will show up. Most of the time, people can’t even find the bodies of their loved ones. They have killed many peasants that way.”

Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.

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