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Can re-thinking food production solve Miami-Dade’s high rates of food insecurity?

Some food banks aim to grow and sell their own food – a new approach to combating the ‘food apartheid’ which puts Black and Hispanic residents at higher risk of hunger.

By Gabriella Gomez, Martina Jaramillo, Valeria Velasquez, Lucia Vigil and D’Avora Williams

Youthcast Media Group®

MIAMI – Toward the end of every week, Tarah Mead finishes her 12-hour workday at a hotel laundromat, races home and evaluates the limited food options she has left to prepare dinner for her three children.

As her husband, Christopher Mead, works the late shift as a security guard, she checks the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets in their apartment in the Brownsville neighborhood of Miami and finds them nearly empty. Whatever meat and vegetables the couple secured at food banks that week are running low. 

Christopher and Tarah Mead, who live in the Brownsville neighborhood of Miami, both work full-time jobs but still spend most of their free time researching and visiting food banks to help feed their three children (Alan Gomez, Youthcast Media Group®).

As soon as dinner is over, she starts thinking about the next challenge: breakfast. 

That daily cycle became even harder when the couple received small raises at their jobs, increasing their combined income just over the line where they qualify for food stamps.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in the food supply chain that drove up prices of staples like eggs, cheese, and milk.

"We're barely making enough to cover our bills, let alone food,” Tarah Mead said.

Now, the married couple spends all their free time researching food banks to figure out how they’re going to feed their children each week.

“I can go hungry, but they're going to eat no matter what I have to do,” Christopher Mead said. “Needs come first and wants come second. Usually, all the money you have will go to the needs. You can't get what you want, and sometimes you feel bad about it, but then you remember that the kids need their milk and cheese.”

Across the country millions of families face the same struggle. And the problem is getting worse: a recent report from the U.S. Agriculture Department shows that in 2022 hunger climbed in the U.S, a reversal of a yearslong trend of improvement. About 17 million households, including 3 million with children, were considered food insecure last year, the report said, a climb from 13.5 million such households in 2021.

 In Miami-Dade County, about 287,000 people (about 10% of the population) and 14% of children are considered “food insecure,” according to Feeding America, a national non-profit collection of food banks. 

At the root of this food insecurity — in Miami and across the country —are wealth disparities and systemic racism that’s been dubbed  “food apartheid” by activists. That means that people who are predominantly Black, Hispanic, or come from other minority groups struggle to find healthy, affordable food for their families more than other races. 

“The demographics of the people that we serve reflect the fact that systemic racism is real,” said Allyson Vaulx, assistant vice president of philanthropy at Feeding South Florida.

And it’s not just low-income families who are struggling. A 2022 survey by No Kid Hungry, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that battles hunger and poverty, found that 36% of respondents with household incomes between $50,000-$100,000 reported experiencing food insecurity at some point in the year

Vaulx said their clients also reveal how food banks aren’t just for unhoused or unemployed people. “It's people with full time jobs in two income households,” she said.

Feeding South Florida feeds 1.4 million people each year across four counties through school pantries, mobile pantries and other programs, but has nothing to do with the food production process. 

But in other parts of the country, there’s an effort underway by advocates, indigenous community members, nonprofits and everyday citizens to localize food production and reclaim a role in the decentralized, global system — an effort that’s gained steam since the pandemic laid bare how vulnerable many communities are to disruptions in that system.  

Expanding the role of food banks

In most cases, food banks perform only one job: receiving donated food and distributing it. They don’t grow the food, package it or sell it. 

Vaulx said the pandemic showed the dangers of relying on such a complicated, distant food distribution system that left South Florida grocery stores short of so many staples. When food was available, the prices shot up, leading to a dozen eggs going from $4 a carton to more than $10 in grocery stores.

Other food banks across the country have experimented with growing their own food, largely in response to the same pandemic-related shortages and pressures. Of the 200 food banks that are part of the Feeding America network nationwide, though, only 29 grow their own food, according to the nonprofit.

Other food banks across the country have experimented with growing their own food, largely in response to the same pandemic-related shortages and pressures. Of the 200 food banks that are part of the Feeding America network nationwide, though, only 29 grow their own food, according to the nonprofit.

Controlling the entire process would allow a food bank to ensure a steady supply of food and the power to keep its prices affordable for low-income families.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, for instance, grows its own greens. This way, in winter months, it doesn’t have to wait for fresh produce from Mexico and California; it produces its own fresh, locally grown greens by way of what’s called a vertical farm. This means a temperature-controlled environment inside shipping containers where greens are grown in stacked towers under LED lights. The system produces up to 1,800 heads of lettuce and other greens every 45 days year-round.

The San Antonio Food Bank, in Texas, doesn’t need indoor farming. It operates a 75-acre farm and an urban orchard with 170 fruit trees. Patrick Brennan, its manager of facilities and agricultural initiatives, told that San Antonio gets occasional freezes, but for now the food bank is able “to decrease costs by growing produce traditionally.”

The Mississauga Food Bank, in Ontario, gets more than occasional freezes. Its AquaGrow Farms grows lettuce through hydroponics, too, but goes a step further by raising tilapia in tanks, thereby becoming the first food bank in Canada to produce its own fish. “It shows the community we’re thinking creatively,” its executive director told Morning Ag Clips, a website that covers agricultural news.

In Miami-Dade County the highest levels of food insecurity are in downtown Miami, Homestead, Miami Gardens, Brownsville, and the Upper West Side, according to the Food Insecurity Index. Blacks and Hispanics make up the majority of those neighborhoods. 

The lowest levels of food insecurity are in the white-majority Palmetto Bay, Key Biscayne, Brickell, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables neighborhoods. 

Transportation and income are the two biggest barriers to healthy eating in South Florida, a car-centric region with little public transportation, said Vaulx. That’s why her organization dedicates most of its resources to those neighborhoods, distributing food through drive-through pantries, soup kitchens, school pantries, and other programs. 

“You can have 10 corner stores in a mile, but if bread is $10, it decreases your accessibility to that bread,” she said.

A cup of tea for breakfast

In Tarah Mead’s family, the struggle to find and afford healthy food transcends generations. When she immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras when she was a little girl, she remembers days when they only got a cup of tea for breakfast.

"I watched my mom and dad struggle to provide food for us,” she said. “There weren't any food banks in those days.”

But now there are, and the Meads hope that organizations like Feeding South Florida can succeed in their attempts to battle food insecurity. Families who can’t afford to eat end up feeling a sense of helplessness and vulnerability, and feel overwhelmed by the burden that sneaks into their lives and those of their children.

For Christopher Mead, overcoming that feeling of desperation is almost as important as finding enough food to eat. 

“There are three basic things you need as a person,” Christopher Mead said. “There’s food, water, and shelter. Without these three things, you’re not a whole person.”

Gabriella Gomez, Martina Jaramillo, Lucia Vigil are 11th grade students and Valeria Velasquez is a recent graduate of Coral Reef High School in Miami. D'Avora Williams is an 11th grade student at Miami Lakes Educational Center.They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s spring 2023 reporting workshop on food insecurity and worked with YMG mentor-editor and former USA TODAY reporter Alan Gomez. YMG is a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.


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