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Local leaders say food insecurity, scarcity is contributing to increased violence in Cleveland

Cleveland partners with community advocates for access to healthy, nutritious and culturally relevant foods.
Cleveland Department of Public Health
Cleveland Department of Public Health
Partners in a collaborative city-wide effort to secure healthy, nutritious and culturally relevant foods gather August 29 to discuss their continuing partnership. Attendees included, from left, Lexie St. Denis, Great Lakes Brewing; Tikora Alexander, Sustainable Cleveland; Angela Sayles, Little Africa Food Collaborative; Zainab Pixler, Cleveland Department of Public Health; Trey Williams, Hood Honey 216; Jessie Garson, Revolutionary Love Community Garden; Jamel Rahkeera, Village Family Farms; Veronica Walton, Food Depot to Health; Mikki Smith, Little Africa Food Collaborative; Mike Walton, Tunnel Vision Hoops; Jennifer Lumpkin, My Grow Connect and Lena Boswell, Nguzo Saba Gardens.

The Cleveland Department of Public Health recently hired its first-ever local food system strategies coordinator to address food insecurity, which some local government officials and community leaders see as a factor contributing to rising violence rates and ongoing health inequity.

The new coordinator, Zainab Pixler, started a month ago with a two-year directive to determine the reason why some neighborhoods, especially those home to racial and ethnic minority groups, lack access to healthy foods.

“I'm tasked with getting a full landscape of the food system of Cleveland, really understand where the pain points are and figuring out a plan to address those pain points,” Pixler said.

Pixler said what neighborhoods such as Collinwood and the Central neighborhoods are facing is "food apartheid" when they do not have access to healthy and nutritious foods such as fresh produce and whole grains as well as culturally relevant foods or foods that are part of a particular community's culture.

Grocery store
Zety Akhzar
The cost of food rising and SNAP benefits getting cut could increase food insecurity in Ohio.

"The term is really to directly address the systems of oppression that have been put in place to sort of segregate the food system and people's access to food throughout certain communities," she said. "So it really brings in the topic of systematic racism."

Instead of full-service grocery stores and restaurants that serve healthy foods, many of these communities have higher concentrations of fast-food restaurants and stores that sell cheaper, less healthy options. The result is a rise in chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems, she said.

During Pixler's first few weeks on the job she has been attending listening sessions with community members to better understand the problems they're facing and the solutions as they see them. These listening sessions will continue as she not only wants to meet with individual citizens but also with city council members representing these communities. Some of the community groups she's met with include Little Africa Food Collaborative, Village Family Farms, Food Depot to Health, My Grow Connect and Nguzo Saba Gardens.

So far Pixler said she has heard that a lack of full-service grocery stores and access to land for farming and gardens are two key problems facing certain communities.

"Land ownership is huge for folks to be able to grow and produce their own food and share it with their community," Pixler said.

Even as she is still meeting with community members and learning more, Pixler said she is starting to work with partners on solutions. For example, she is working with the Central Kinsman Wellness Collective on a food co-op in the neighborhood. As well, she is working with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy on its efforts to help residents acquire or lease public land for the purpose of growing their own food.

Dr. Edward Barksdale, Jr., founder of the Antifragility Initiative, a gun violence prevention program at University Hospitals, agrees with Pixler that lack of access to food is a crucial issue in Cleveland, adding he believes it is perhaps the biggest reason for gun violence.

We find that children are foraging, foraging for food," he said. "Food insecurity is the greatest [problem]. Most people say, 'Oh, these are kids who are out slinging drugs,' but they leave the house because they don't have food.”

The scarcity of consistent access to healthy, nutritious foods helps lead to hopelessness and that leads to violence, according to Barksdale, who is also surgeon-in-chief at University Hospital's Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

"You can live 40 days without food," he said. "You can live three days without water. You can live eight minutes without air. But you can't live a moment without hope. So that we feel that the core survival for our children and for our community is to provide the sustenance of hope because they may be foraging for food or foraging for money or for purging for drugs. But the driver for that is they're trying to find that moment of hope so that they can survive."

This lack of hope has been painfully obvious this summer, said Barksdale, who added he has seen more and more severe violence against younger children, including within families.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.