Food Equality For All, by Maria Hines


Maria Hines and Congressman Jim McDermott, April 2013, Washington D.C.

What would it be like to only have $6 a day per person to feed your family? How heavy would it make our hearts feel to look into the eyes of a child who was still hungry and lacked the nutrition they needed to think clearly in school, grow strong, and feel healthy? My heart feels heavy knowing that one in five children in King County are food insecure (according to the City of Seattle Food Action Plan).

My name is Maria Hines, chef/owner of 3 certified organic restaurants in Seattle (Tilth Restaurant, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce). I made the commitment to have all the restaurants be certified organic, through Oregon Tilth. Eating nutritious organic food at home drove the desire for me to nourish those who come to Maria Hines Restaurants, to receive organic food and the pleasure of taste.

It tugs at me, knowing that being able to afford healthy nutritious food is currently a privilege, not a right. There is a lack of food equity in the world. How can I promote that everybody should eat local, nutritious, sustainable food when so many of our brothers and sisters struggle to afford nourishment? Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) caseloads have risen 83% since 2009. 122,197 Seattleites visit food banks each quarter. Physicians diagnose 10,000 to 20,000 pesticide poisonings each year in the U.S. and diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in King County.

The SNAP Challenge

In my quest for answers I’ve come across some amazing opportunities. In order to get the smallest glimpse of how much local, nutritionally dense, sustainable food one could eat on $6 a day with the SNAP benefit, I challenged myself to be on this budget for 30 days. I was humbled deeply within the first week of this challenge. It was incredibly hard, nearly impossible to get the USDA recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Finding local foods in a large budget oriented grocery chain was equally hard. When you add the cost of sustainable foods, the challenge becomes even harder. With sacrifices and creativity it is barely possible to eat local, nutritionally dense, sustainable food on a SNAP budget. The biggest sacrifice fell in the local department. Frozen local organic strawberries were more expensive than frozen organic mangos from Mexico. I should also mention that the “local” strawberries were from USA. Not even a state origin was mentioned on the packaging. The majority of the sustainable fresh fruits and veggies that I came across, were not very seasonal at the budget oriented grocery chain. I know that some budget-driven grocery stores do a better job than others with labeling local origin, but working full time doesn’t allow for much time to travel far to search for and obtain these items (and I don’t even come close to living in a food desert). I encourage everyone to spend a week or month taking the SNAP challenge and seeing what you may learn through the process.

PEW Charitable Trust’s Super Chefs for Superbugs

Sustainable meats are also expensive. But it is the only healthy meat option out there. I refuse to eat any meat that has been injected with antibiotics. Humans can build up a resistance to antibiotics when eating meat with antibiotics and when they become ill, they are unable to treat their illness with antibiotics because they have built up a resistance to it. This is appropriately named a “superbug”. There have been many scientifically proven deaths and severe illnesses created from antibiotics in meat. Please note that if a package reads “hormone-free”, that does not mean antibiotic-free.

I had the opportunity to speak with our local leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in April 2013. The PEW Charitable Trust accompanied me to Senator Patty Murray and Senator Maria Cantwell’s offices, to sit down and have a conversation about how to resolve the issue of antibiotics in meat. There is currently legislation on the table that will help end the deaths and sickness created by this issue. My friends Chef Tom Colicchio and Chef Sam Talbot also joined me in speaking with Congresswoman Hoffman from California, and Senator Feinstein’s New York offices on Capitol Hill about the issue. It was wonderful to be able to speak about this with our fine decision-making leaders of Washington State. I encourage you to visit, call, or write our leaders, if you so desire. They really do listen.

Food Equity

So what’s the answer? How do we create food equity for all? How to we make sure that all our brothers and sisters can gain access and afford local, sustainable, nutritious foods?

There is a solution that would draw us closer to solving this problem. Creating incentives for SNAP recipients to receive a matched dollar amount to spend on fruits and veggies at their local farmer’s market is one possible solution. The good news is, there are many organizations out there providing this service. The result of the matching is overwhelmingly positive on so many levels. Food equity is increased to lower income families, local small and medium sized farms are supported, health care costs go down, and our local economy gets stimulated.

Wholesome Wave has been one of the organizations leading the charge and setting the example in providing this service. Their data demonstrates that when there is a SNAP incentive dollar match program at farmer’s markets, that 27% of market sales come from SNAP users, the farmers see a 41% increase in sales, and 95% of the SNAP shoppers say they value the quality of produce. In April 2013, I also attended the Wholesome Wave 4th annual convening in D.C. I was able to visit Congressman Jim McDermott’s office with my friend Ned Porter, from Wholesome Wave, to request support for the SNAP incentive program to be included in the upcoming Farm Bill (due to be completed October of this year). This would allow us the possibility to sustain matched dollar incentive programs for SNAP recipients at the federal level.

Does a program like this exist in Washington State? There were a few pilot programs that occurred last year at selected farmers markets. One of the programs is called Fresh Bucks. This program was a pilot at 7 Seattle farmer’s markets last year. Their data showed that 1,500 low income individuals were impacted, there was a $70,000 increase in sales for the local farmer’s, 85% individuals said they ate more fruits and vegetables, and the estimated economic impact to the local economy was $125,300. An expanded Fresh Bucks pilot will run again this year. The funding for the Fresh Bucks program is a collaboration of public and private funding. We are at risk of not being able to expand the pilot this year and at risk of not turning the pilot into a concrete program due to funding challenges.

If you are interested in learning about how you can assist in leveling the food equity playing field in our community, please email No matter how big or small your financial, time, or vocal contribution is towards this cause, it will be of great benefit for many. This food system, is our food system. We have the right, the opportunity, and the privilege to honor and care for the food grown and to provide nourishment for every human being.