The sustainable pathway to improving access to healthy, affordable food for people living in underserved communities must be thoughtful, inclusive and a combination of organizational- and community-led efforts. Case Western Reserve University’s Darcy Freedman, who is project director of the Nourishing Power Network at the Mary Ann Swetland Center for Environmental Health at the School of Medicine, knows this first hand.
In fact, the lessons Freedman learned from studying an unsuccessful Cleveland food hub informed the development of the Nourishing Power Network, a network of grassroots, community and nonprofit organizations and individuals who aim to transform food systems and expand food justice initiatives through research and collaboration. The Network, which was formed in the summer of 2022, is led by a community-academic partnership that includes the Swetland Center for Environmental Health, the FARE Project, and Neighborhood Connections.
In 2015, Freedman received a National Institutes of Health grant to study the impact of a food hub slated to open through a St. Clair-Superior neighborhood development project. Food hubs are centrally located spaces designed to store, market and distribute locally produced food products, usually in underserved communities.
And as time went on, Freedman was troubled by what she was learning in her research.
“The food hub was not going as planned,” she says. “It was not effective at improving healthy food access and it eventually ended in foreclosure. planned.”
Freedman wanted to find out why. As well-intended as the effort was, sadly it had missed the mark. The project lacked community ownership and engagement, as well as coordination among interested parties.
So in 2018, Freedman launched a new study called Modeling the Future of Food in Your Neighborhood. In that research, Freedman and her team began to work with partners to unpack the pieces and parts of the local food system. They wanted to know how those parts worked and how they were connected. Most importantly, they wanted to know the leverage points to tip the food system to fairness.
The team found that there were many solutions that could contribute to an equitable food system. But there was one contributing factor that was essential to driving sustainable food systems change.
“We found that we needed to have community-driven food systems change,” Freedman says. “So we started to look at what it meant to create a systems change intervention that prioritizes ownership and community engagement in the local food system.”
Those findings led to the Nourishing Power Network. “Our theory of change is that in order to make that happen, we need to create spaces to bridge community power with organizational power to spark and expand community-driven food justice work,” Freedman says.
The Nourishing Power Network has a four-pronged approach to driving food systems change. The first component is its Advisory Council, which invests in food justice leadership. The council first convened in September 2022 and meets monthly. The second is a fellowship, which invests in creative ideas to realize nutrition equity. There were 10 Nourishing Power Fellows in the first cohort whose projects focused on free breakfast programs, urban agriculture, community farms and gardens, and nutrition education, among others. A funding component invests in transformative food justice initiatives and a final networking component invests in developing relationships through quarterly networking events.
“There’s not a single reason why we have problems like food insecurity, food apartheid and poor food quality,” Freedman says. “What we’re trying to do with the Nourishing Power Network is to create an infrastructure that allows us to pivot and adapt to whatever the needs and opportunities are to achieve the goal of food justice.”
Morgan Taggart, Director of The FARE Project, says that the partnership that comprises the Nourishing Power Network is a strong one. "Darcy and her team at Swetland authentically and intentionally want to connect with the community. They are open to co-creating something together," Taggart says. "Nourishing Power reflects that we need to be looking at alternative, innovative strategies for change that invest in really strong partnerships with community members."