Southeast Seattle women want access to healthy food

Communities of color can tune out messages about a green economy, sensing them as elitist. But they listen when they address their everyday lives, including fresh food and health and their communities.

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Jacquel Redmond and her son, Reakwan.

Communities of color can tune out messages about a green economy, sensing them as elitist. But they listen when they address their everyday lives, including fresh food and health and their communities.

For four months, it happened at grocery stores, transit centers, in people’s homes, and at local coffee shops. Got Green, a grassroots group, conducted interviews with 212 low-income women and women of color for its Women in the Green Economy project. The women were asked to rank four areas — access to healthy foods, green homes, green jobs, and public transportation — in terms of importance to their family and elaborate on their reasoning.

Of the women surveyed, 40 percent ranked access to healthy food as a top priority for their family. Two-thirds of those who ranked food as the most important to their family said that cost was the major impediment to accessing fresh produce and healthy food. The women reported being unable to access healthy food due to location, a lack of access to organics, not having a place to garden, and not having enough time.

One-third of the survey was conducted in Somali, Spanish, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. Got Green volunteers coded the responses on a multiple choice sheet. A majority of those surveyed are from the Rainier Valley, where 50 percent more families live below the federal poverty line than in Seattle. The results were compiled in a report that was released on Sept. 24, the International Day of Action on Climate Change.

“I started this project because I noticed the structure to progress almost never include our voices, the voice of the low-income community and people of color,” said Tammy Nguyen, project organizer of the Women in the Green Economy Project.

Discussing the importance of healthy food in the survey, Nguyen said, "Most women in the committee work full-time or part-time and are single parents. Working full-time or part-time and being a parent, you don’t really have time to garden.

"We’re looking around Southeast Seattle to see what are some issues we can tackle around bringing more food dollars into the community pocket,” said Nguyen, a New Holly resident who is also a single mother.

On the second Saturday of each month, Violet Lavatai and her sister drive 20 minutes from their home in Skyway to buy groceries from a produce stand, where fruits and vegetables are more affordable. According to a 2008 report by King County’s Food Access Policy Council, most of Lavatai’s Skyway neighborhood has been identified as a “healthy food desert,” where residents must travel more than 30 minutes on public transit to reach a major grocery store.

“I call Skyway ‘the forgotten neighborhood,' " said Lavatai. "There is nothing around here, no grocery stores, no actual stores. If we need to go shopping, we have to go down the hill where it’s Rainier Avenue or down the other side of Renton."

When Ramata, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, was approached to take the survey, she was breastfeeding her daughter and worried about having the proper nutrients, and about not ingesting pesticides or processed foods.

“I don’t think any family prefers to eat processed foods; but at certain times of the month, it’s what’s consumed because there [are] no funds to buy fresh produce,” said Ramata.

Her own family recipes calls for vegetables like green beans, tomatoes, onions, and various greens, but when money gets tight, she scrimps — rice, onions, and something canned.

Aside from conducting the survey, the project aimed to identify issues that low-income communities of color can relate to. Over half the women who listed healthy food and green homes as their top priorities expressed that their major concern is for their families’ health.

Jacquel Redmond, a lifelong resident of Rainier Beach, chose green homes as her top priority. She and her son, age 7, developed respiratory issues due to the mold on the outside of her windows. Poor ventilation and weatherization like single-paned windows, lack of range hood fans, and poorly insulated walls cause rack up higher utility bills for low-income families.

Green jobs are often inaccessible to women in the low-income community due to work hours incompatible with parenting, lack of training, and lack of outreach to the community. “A green job doesn’t have to mean weatherization, solar panels, or wind energy,” said Nguyen. “Our definition of ‘green job’ is a job that has no waste.”

Nguyen suggests that bus driver positions, which provide transportation for up to 40 people at a time, or even providing daycare services, a job which sustains the employee and the local community, are also green jobs.

According to Seattle’s Transit Master Plan, more than 50 percent of households in Rainier Beach and 30 percent in Rainier Valley are without cars, and cuts to local bus routes has exacerbated and increased costs. Many believe the light rail does not serve the daily needs of the low-income community.

Following the survey, roundtables conducted on each issue made one point clear: all four issues tie together in how they affect residents and their health.

“If you’re going to take the bus, you’re going to stop in many places. You’ll go shopping, drop off the kids, or go to a doctor’s appointment. The light rail bypasses a lot of locations and buses are being cut so they’re getting overcrowded. It’s getting to be a problem so it makes the day harder if you’re trying to get to a better grocery store,” said Ramata.

“Whatever you breathe in your home that is toxic is going to drain you. You’re not going to be able to get out and work. And if you don’t have a good transportation, you wont be able to go to work. If you don’t have a good paying job, then you’re not going to have money to buy groceries. If your groceries are not quality or nutritious. … It’s a big circle and it loops into each other,” said Nguyen.

With report in hand, Got Green is assessing the recommendations that rose from the roundtable discussions. A Food Access Committee was formed, ran by Nguyen and other volunteers. Some volunteers, like Ramata, got involved as a result of taking the survey. The committee will tackle goals like working to recover the EBT card fees Chase Bank charges the state of Washington, and using those dollars to expand the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program to include families with children over five. Other goals also include supporting financial incentives like “double bucks” programs, which reward families on the Basic Food Program with extra dollars for selecting healthy food choices, and establishing a neighborhood produce stand where community members can sell locally grown produce.

Got Green aims to work with Community Power Works to secure weatherization dollars for multi-family apartment buildings in Southeast and Central Seattle and ensure that residents are protected from rent hikes due to government subsidized building upgrades, along with other recommendations for green jobs and public transportation listed in the report.

“What green really means is health; the health of the air we breathe, our home environment, and the people in our family. We, communities of color, often tune out anything we hear about ‘green’ because we see it as elitist, but it really is about the family and community,” said Ramata.

“I see this movement as crucial to our community, and to get past the jargon of green. With green, we think of conspicuous consumption. But green is not what’s on the outside, it’s about our family’s health. We know this, and that is the word we’re trying to get out.”


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