Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ulises Zatarain, the Program Director of the Washington Youth Garden.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Ulises Zatarain (UZ): Food is a fundamental part of our lives that affects every aspect of our existence. My background is in education and community development, and I have been able to see the varied tiers of influence and impact food has on individuals and communities as a whole. Access to quality and affordable food is often an issue that has ripple effects in our society. Food affects students and not only in how they learn, but interact with each other. Similarly, lack of access to fresh produce and quality food also affects how adults live and interact with each other as well. Working in community development across various neighborhoods over the last 10 years, I have found food to be a common denominator to determine much of a neighborhood’s identity, and the more diverse, healthy, and accessible food options are, the healthier that neighborhood is on all levels. In that vein, my interest in food and agriculture stemmed from a desire to improve communities comprehensively, one bite at a time.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
UZ: I think programs like the Healthy Schools Act and local farmers markets, as well as community-driven food markets, are essential to improving the food system. Exposing young people to varied food options and fresh produce, as well as the art of cooking and sharing meals with different people, is the best way to break poor health and nutrition cycles. However, this is a considerable challenge to overcome, given that initiatives like farmers markets [and] community markets do not have the resources and market presence to thoroughly impact families as much as fast food chains and other similar market forces.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
UZ: Farmers markets, traveling food markets or trucks, and innovative community markets [are] what excite me most. Not only because these can offer healthy food options to people, but rather they can really bring communities together by sharing food and cooking food together, allowing diverse people to interact with each other at multiple levels in a positive way. Also, these initiatives have economic development impacts to benefit communities in need.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
UZ: Well, not sure about a food hero, or what that really is, or would look like. Someone that inspired me, though, was an individual I met in Chicago while working in the lower west side. This person, in collaboration with others, started a neighborhood community market that offered fresh foods and vegetables, as well as other locally grown and produced items, every Sunday in the spring and summer months. These individuals had jobs of their own, some operated their own businesses and some were retired; ultimately, they had no need to do this. They took this on without any financial incentive and worked tirelessly to achieve the gargantuan task of organizing something like a weekly market. I think seeing their sacrifice to do something to benefit their community, as well as highlight their community, not only inspired me but made me realize just how difficult it is to start a new enterprise; it made me further appreciate the sacrifice of the entrepreneurial spirit and the level of drive, commitment, and trust it takes to act on noble causes.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
UZ: Knowing and believing that access to food is a right and not a privilege is what drives me and inspires me every day to do this work.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
UZ: [The] cost of fresh produce and vegetables was very accessible back in our parents’ and grandparents’ days. Food items like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and more were very affordable and a fine way to feed a family a balanced diet. I think as an inadvertent result of the trendiness that is the green food movement and the markets it has created, healthy food items that were once very accessible are now expensive because of market demand and social popularity. This has forced working class families, who in the days of our parents and grandparents would have access to balanced diet, to now heavily rely on fast and processed foods to feed their themselves and their families.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
UZ: Accessibility. I think local, regional, and national ordinances need to be put in place to ensure that every community has a suitable and affordable grocery store within a quarter- or half-mile radius of every residence. This may seem extreme, or unrealistic, but there are corner stores, liquor stores, and fast food chains within those radiuses in every community, particularly in communities of color and of low to moderate incomes. The government can and should support and put systems in place, and create incentives to ensure the presence of suitable and affordable grocery stores and healthy food markets in communities of need. Providing these accessible food markets also means jobs, which will positively impact communities in need.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
UZ: That’s a tough one. I suppose, as cliché as this may sound, eating a fruit and vegetable every day and telling your children, family members, and friends to do the same every day. A simple reminder, a call, or even a text message every day is simple enough and can make a significant difference.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
UZ: No more food deserts in our country. We are the wealthiest, if not among the wealthiest nations in the world. We have made amazing technological and economic advances in the past 10 years. There is no reason why any child should go hungry or any family should not have access to quality food.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
UZ: Eliminating food deserts for good.
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