Ernesto Fonseca, CEO of the Hacienda Community Development Corporation, will be speaking at Food Tank’s first inaugural Seattle Summit, “Growing Food Policy,” which will be held on March 17, 2018 in partnership the Environmental Working Group, Food Action, Garden-Raised Bounty, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Seattle University’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability.
Born in a small, underprivileged community in Central Mexico, Fonseca immigrated to the United States in 1998 and has since dedicated his life to addressing the needs of underserved communities. While living in Phoenix, Arizona, he spearheaded assessment initiatives on the health impacts of community development including affordable housing, transportation, and access to fresh food. His work seeks to empower low- and middle-income communities, taking a systems approach to community development and providing policy recommendations for local and state governments. As CEO of Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC), one of the largest CDCs in Oregon, Fonseca helps provide affordable housing, youth and family services, homeownership education, and small business development. Additionally, Hacienda CDC has created a Latino Market for emerging food entrepreneurs.
Food Tank spoke with Fonseca to discuss his life experiences, his current efforts to improve access to nutrition education, and his hopes for the future of food policy.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Ernesto Fonseca (EF): Growing up in an extremely poor community in central Mexico, I remember my parents asking my siblings and I to go to adjacent lots to collect wild vegetables. My diet at this time was very basic: beans, rice, and lots of quelites (wild, leafy green plants) that we found in the wild. When I immigrated in 1998 to Wisconsin, our diet changed radically. We no longer picked and cooked fresh vegetable due to the wide availability and low cost of processed foods in the United States.
My professional life led me to focus on community development through systems thinking. Through this work, we completed extensive research on access to affordable healthy foods in communities of color and studied the relationship between housing, nutritious food, and active living in community development. During this time, I never forgot my personal experience navigating a drastic food change and the real health impacts that change had on me. The food we eat and our health depends on the interactions between land use, housing, and development policies.
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
EF: We provide educational information to individuals on the nutritional needs of their bodies. We also inform them of ways to identify healthy eating opportunities and how to access fresh foods. Hacienda CDC works closely with numerous organizations and the Oregon State Legislature to advocate for healthier school meals combined with increased nutritional education and awareness. Finally, we assist in the creation of legislation that supports healthier food systems, sustainable land use, and access to affordable healthy food options in low-income communities and communities of color.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
EF: Fresh food affordability and access are two of the most significant issues for low-income communities. These neighborhoods lack grocery stores that carry a wide variety of fresh foods, presenting additional barriers to low-income families without the capability to travel to these stores or afford those healthier options. We need to increase the supply of locally and regionally grown produce and grains through awareness and educational campaigns in order for communities to learn which foods are the best for them and the planet.
In agriculture, we treat food production as a big global experiment, plagued with unfair farmworker practices, reliance on transportation systems, and chemical industries that release harmful substances into our land and water. Agriculture must instead be regional, with a focus on technology that reduces our reliance on chemical treatments and protects farmers and farm workers from exploitation.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
EF: I am super excited about real-tasting, real-looking imitation meat products that could reduce the burden of meat production on land use. They also contain vegetable and grain products to provide us with alternative sources of protein. This product is still in the development phase, but if successful, will be a radical game changer in our food supply chain.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
EF: Pick fresh, local produce, and meet your local farmer! You will be supporting your local economy, minimizing packaging, cutting transportation, and becoming healthier.
FT: How can we make food policy more relevant to eaters so that the politicians representing them feel a mandate to act?
EF: Food policy has always been a second or third priority in politics. You rarely ever will hear anyone talking about food policy outside of niche forums. We need to link food policy to affordability factors, family incomes, and economic impacts to create support for healthier food policies. In order to create this shift, we must begin by investing in education to bring awareness to food system issues.
FT: What policy areas or ideas would you like to see an increased focus on as the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations kick off?
EF: Conservation is one area that every Farm Bill neglects. Soil degradation, air, and water pollution, as well as wildlife protection, are frequently a side note in the Farm Bill budget. Allowing corporations to buy carbon credits will not reach the levels of investment that are required to enact comprehensive conservation policies, however, it is a step in the right direction.