For Deborah Howe’s senior capstone course, food is the answer.
Howe’s Community and Regional Planning Studio course required students to contribute to a food security study in Norristown.
Howe, who teaches a course at Temple’s Ambler Campus on the merits of using community resources to access fresh and nutritious food choices, had been “looking for a good place for our students to do a real world, client-based project.” She picked Norristown, a municipality just six miles outside the Philadelphia city limits.
According to the 2010 Census, Norristown is home to more than 34,000 residents, 19.3 percent of which live below the poverty line and whose median income does not exceed $45,000 a year. Howe decided to meet with local officials to propose an examination of the community’s food resources.
“The level of interest was incredibly strong,” Howe said. “Everybody saw the possibilities, and it was really kind of exciting.”
Students who worked on the project created plans that they thought would benefit the community. The plans were hypothetical, but taken into consideration by a small group of residents, local politicians, the Norristown School District Food Director, the principal of Whitehall Elementary School and the Catholic Social Service.
Working together, the entire group is called Norristown Food System Task Force. This group oversaw the students’ efforts during the six months they worked in the municipality.
The students identified three main problems: access, mobility and finance. Access to grocery stores was limited, as many residents do not own cars and the town’s walkability is lacking. Though public transportation is adequate, it is underutilized.
Additional problems with the transport of goods to emergency assistance programs leaves many food pantries deficient.
“I think that the main issue was communication,” Jill Tiernan, a student in Howe’s class and member of the Norristown project, said. She believed many people were unaware of the programs in place.
The students identified four solutions: transportation, education, urban development and emergency food services. The Norristown Food System Task Force would oversee the students’ efforts during the six months they worked in the municipality.
The students first identified weaknesses in transportation. Many grocery stores were out of reach for families without cars. The students’ proposed solution was a series of mixed-use shopping centers where residential neighborhoods commingled with supermarkets.
Another solution was to bring the residents to the produce by using the available public transportation and by improving Norristown’s walkability.
“A large portion of the community was lower income and there were few food choices,” Tiernan said.
As a low-income area, seven out of 10 public schools in Norristown have more than 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The Norristown Public School District receives funding for nutrient-dense foods through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program and works with Michelle Obama’s “Get Fit” campaign to provide healthy meals to school-aged children.
The “Backpack Program,” invented by the students, would use donated goods to provide children with ingredients for a wholesome dinner. Extended YMCA and community center resources would also provide meals to students during the summer recesses.
“Feeding children who are experiencing hunger is the responsibility not just of the child’s family, but of the community,” the Norristown Food System Assessment report stated.
In attempt to use the community to achieve complete sustainability, the task force identified 131.7 acres of land eligible for urban gardens. These gardens would allow citizens to grow food at low costs. The gardens would also bolster supplies at local food kitchens. Food trucks, too, were identified as a way to bring freshly cooked food to citizens.
For the impoverished, the students proposed improvements in the emergency food services, including food pantries and Meals on Wheels.
Different appropriation of state funding were also suggested to maintain food kitchen hours.
Though no adjustment to funding has been suggested yet, Howe believes something could come out of the program.
“The students pulled these things together in such a way it could spark some other initiatives,” Howe said.
Lora Strum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org