April Non-profit: The Nashville Food Project
“We are a staff and a volunteer base of overachievers that are visionaries who want to see a world without poverty and without hunger. Where everyone has access to the food they want and need, and everyone has access to the resources and the relationship to get all of those things,” Teri Sloan, Development Director of TNFP, said with conviction.
Forty-one million Americans are food insecure.
According to the USDA, “food insecurity” is ‘the lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle.’
To look at it another way, one in seven Americans are food insecure, and one in five children in America are food insecure.
But it’s not just about having enough food, it’s about having access to nutritious, whole foods. The link between food insecurity and poor health is inextricable. When unable to afford wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, one’s overall health declines, lowering one’s ability to prevent and fight disease. Healthy food isn’t just about weight loss, it’s about longevity and quality of life.
I’ve been overwhelmed with what to include in this article, as there is an extraordinary amount to tackle and address when it comes to food insecurity, food deserts, food waste and nutritionally deficient diets for those who live in poverty. But that’s exactly what The Nashville Food Project has been doing since 2011.
“Food is a reflection of everything. When we look at the problems we have with the food and poverty and lack of nutrition, it’s so complex... There are reasons people don’t have access to food, there are reasons that 40% of the food produced in the united states goes to waste and people are still hungry,” declared Elizabeth Langgle-Martin of The Nashville Food Project
What’s exemplary about TNFP is they not only give food to those who need it, they provide community gardens, garden training, a marketplace for farmers and they build community and create partnerships. But they aren’t just handing out processed, packaged lunches. These meals are thoughtfully prepared in their kitchens, often packed with produce from their gardens.
TNFP exemplifies the idea that everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food.
In Davidson County, where Nashville resides, 17.2 percent of people are food insecure. That is an astounding percentage. Think about this: about 1 in 6 people in the county struggle with food insecurity.
Teri said it well: “As the ‘it’ city continues to grow, we are just furthering the divide… as our city gets more people and more prominence and more attention, we’re finding that the need is also growing a lot, so we really need to be able to scale up.”
Those who are food insecure estimate needing about $17.24 more per week to meet their nutritional needs.
Think about how much you spend on Starbucks per week (people still go there, right?) or how much you spend when you go out to lunch during work. For many, $17.24 seems like chump change.
This should open our eyes to the beneficial ways we can use the money we have.
The people of TNFP know what they do best, which is growing and cooking high-quality, nutritious food. They have built an exceptional network and community between various nonprofits, as they provide meals for the clients of other nonprofits. By partnering with others, they are able to focus on what they specialize in while complementing other organizations’ specialties. They realize it’s difficult and almost impossible for one entity or one nonprofit to be all things to all people.
“We are looking for our meals to reinforce and build the impact of other really important party-disrupting work that’s going on in our community so that we know our meals are having a greater impact,” Teri said adamantly, “It diminishes the barrier of hunger, it encourages participation and engagement.”
They also partner with grocery stores like Whole Foods, from whom they receive food three times per week to incorporate into the meals they prepare.
Restaurants such as Green Hills Grill provide food that would otherwise be wasted, like salmon scraps and beef.
Las Paletas brings their food scraps to TNFP for composting.
Various local farms donate portions of their crop, and solo, small-scale farmers and gardeners also often bring excess they have, just because.
The entire community is pulling together.
“That also allows us to go into our values of environmental consciousness because it’s actually shifting the way those [places] think about their food excess,” Elizabeth explained, “so when they go into making their meals at a for-profit [place] but thinking about ‘how can we reduce waste and how can we make sure this stretches to feed as many people as possible.’ It’s a mind shift.”
TNFP has a food truck to help distribute the meals they prepare, and they provide about 3,000 meals and snacks per week to emergency food shelters, ELS and after-school programs and other nonprofits and community groups. Currently, they are implementing plans to function at an even larger capacity soon.
What first invigorated me the most about TNFP was their true connection to the food they serve through their multiple gardens, where they implement fully organic practices. There’s something in our DNA that makes us innately crave some connection to the earth, on a gritty, physical, intimate level, even if we sometimes don’t realize it.
They have gardens at their Woodmont and Wedgewood locations, as well as community gardens in various lower-income neighborhoods. They also provide garden and farming space for refugees, specifically from Bhutan and Burma at this time. Through their “Growing Together” program, they provide land and a marketplace for these refugee farmers to continue their life’s work here in the states.
The farmers use “Nashville Grown,” an online food hub for local farmers to sell their produce, and they are also beginning their first CSA program with the refugee farmers this fall.
With enthusiasm, Elizabeth said she just purchased a share in the CSA.
Elizabeth actually previously worked with Open Table, a nonprofit partner of TNFP.
“[I was] working intimately with folks who are in poverty, and folks who [were] super creative and incredible in so many ways. But just watching them struggle to get nutritious food, and watching them struggle to make bits of income, little bits of food stamps stretch--it’s always such a big part of the puzzle,” Elizabeth explained.
She said it was invigorating to see people light up when they saw food that was grown and prepared just for them.
“[It’s] not just a meal that feeds everybody, but they feel valued and humanized in this experience,” Elizabeth asserted, and that experience is “growing, preparing and sharing the food.”
I’ve been trying to determine how to write about this in a truly compelling and accessible way. I feel as though I’ve just spouted off statistics on food insecurity and described TNFP’s model. Of course what they do is extraordinary and life-changing, but sometimes it’s difficult for those outside this world to fully appreciate and comprehend the gravity of the issues being tackled without seeing them first hand or hearing people’s stories.
I was unable to speak to those directly impacted due to access and privacy reasons.
But I have my story. It’s certainly not the same as many of the folks TNFP serves, but it’s what I have to offer.
In 2016, as some of you may know, I quit my job, ended my lease and traveled the country alone while eating on $4.23 per day (the average amount of food stamps received per person per day) while personally simulating homelessness. I wanted to bring awareness to the fact that healthy, whole food should be available to people of all socioeconomic statuses everywhere. I wanted to determine if one could eat healthfully on such a low daily food budget. Throughout the trip, I volunteered at homeless shelters and food banks, and I camped outdoors or slept in my Prius the majority of the time. It somewhat sounds like a fantastical adventure (and it was in many ways), but it was a level of difficulty I never thought I would encounter.
I’ve written about this previously, but I don’t think it can hurt to reiterate how it feels to subsist in such a way. However, I don’t in any way claim to truly comprehend what it’s like to be homeless and without enough food on a consistent manner for an indeterminate time.
While embarking on this project, I was constantly searching for a place just to exist. I was kicked out of parking lots multiple times when I just needed a place to rest or cook my food. I was always searching for a bathroom and a way to shower. I was nightly searching for an area to sleep. Oftentimes I didn’t sleep much, as I spent much of the night driving aimlessly, or I was wary of my surroundings (both animals and people). I was constantly searching for somewhere to set up my stoves and cook. It was difficult to store any kind of fresh, healthy food, as it was the middle of the summer, and everything baked in my Prius. I discovered accidentally-sun-baked, goopy bananas aren’t my cup of tea, and oatmeal leftover from fifteen hours ago isn’t a smart choice. Turns out, old cooked oats can make you sick.
The lifestyle was isolating and embarrassing. I felt gross, I smelled gross. I was gross. Showering with jugs of water can only get you so far. I began to understand how difficult it would be to pull oneself out of the cycle of homelessness and poverty. When you’re unshowered, exhausted and donning grimy clothes, it would be essentially impossible to get a job. I highly doubt anyone would have given me a job application or interviewed me.
The situation became more dire when my car broke down along the Oregon coast late one night. I rode with the tow man to an auto shop, said goodbye to my car for the time being, then gathered a few things and biked away. My only food options were convenience stores, a distant Walgreens and few coastal diners. While traveling by bicycle, accessing affordable, healthy food was essentially unattainable, and I didn’t have my stoves to cook anything either. This continued for a few days as they operated on my Prius. After raiding all the convenience stores, my meal times mainly consisted of slicing open cans with my knife and eating whatever salty veggies resided inside.
I was alone essentially the whole time. I ate alone, I read alone, I biked alone, and alone I cooked my thirtieth bowl of oatmeal in two weeks.
I realized the extraordinary value in sharing a meal with others and not having the same meal every. single. day. Living without a home-base was isolating and demeaning, and the constant struggle of searching for ways to function in normal society was mentally taxing and brought bouts of depression.
The Nashville Food Project provides a resource of community and comfort. This nonprofit makes the clients feel humanized and appreciated. TNFP not only creates community through its partnerships with nonprofits and prepared meals, but the volunteers in the gardens and kitchens are fostering friendships and camaraderie while they work together to benefit others.
“Sometimes you see the most eclectic groups of folks [working together]. Food is a way to build community with folks you might not normally sit down with,” explained Elizabeth, with a grin.
“Food is so universal and so elemental, we all get food, we all need food, we all understand it,” Teri added.
I’ve read articles about how just giving people food isn’t going to solve the world’s hunger problem, and I can fully understabd that. But that’s not all TNFP is doing. They are compounding the impact of other nonprofits. They are a piece of a spiderweb-like network of powerhouse nonprofits, all lending a hand to one another, working toward a common goal to bring people out of poverty and into self-sustainability.
By contributing to the mission of TNFP, you not only give people sustenance, you are systematically moving people out of the cycle of homelessness and poverty. Nutritious food fuels this body and mind we have on earth. The food we put inside our bodies helps us build the life we are meant to live. Food is the beginning and end of health. Are you building up your body with what you eat or are you incrementally tearing it down? We must maintain a foundation of wholesome food for ourselves and for others.
I asked Elizabeth and Teri how working for The Nashville Food Project has impacted their life. The overarching themes were awareness and intention.
“Now every time I clean out my fridge, [I think] I gotta be better, I gotta use this stuff, so last week I made carrot top pesto,” Teri said confidently while smiling.
Elizabeth piped in with a laugh, explaining it did actually taste good.
“Everything we do here is very intentional,” Teri concluded.
Various times I’ve encountered the people of TNFP, every single person has been unquestionably gracious, genuine and giving. They are prime examples of what it means to lead a life of intention, to care for our fellow humans and to foster community and inclusion.
If nothing else intrigues you to contribute to The Nashville Food Project, do it for the impressive humans executing their complex work everyday. Or at least glean some insight into ways you can implement these practices into your daily life as well.
To end with a sentimental quote to pull at your heart strings (if you have them)…
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.” –Jean Vanier