As a trauma surgeon, Dr. Randi Smith’s academic career has focused on social determinants of health and identifying the root causes that lead to gun violence and injury.
Smith and her research team at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, assessed 1,700 patients treated by the medical institution for gunshot wounds during a seven-year period and found a significant link between food insecurity and gun violence.
The researchers mapped out hot spots in Atlanta where gun violence was concentrated and looked at census tract data where there was food deserts — areas where there was a low median household income and far distance between homes and grocery stores.
“We found that the two maps of gun violence and food insecurity overlapped so intimately — almost like a snug glove,” Smith said during a virtual panel discussion hosted last month by Bebashi–Transition to Hope, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization. (Click here for video.)
“And it makes sense, food insecurity and gun violence share many of the risk factors of poverty, of deep-seated systemic marginalization of racism, housing insecurity, poor education and the list goes on and on.”
“The things that wrap into food insecurity are low median household incomes and just lack of access,” said Smith, who used to live in Philadelphia.
“Those are the same risk factors that lead to gun violence. It’s not a cause and effect. It’s more so that we need to get to the root causes and go upstream, and that’s how we’re going to attack all these different crisis that our communities are seeing.”
When she and other researchers ask people if they have access to food, they’ll often say “yes,” even though it’s not nutritious.
“So that is also another factor,” Smith said. “If you go into some communities of color, you see nothing but fast food restaurants. They’re cheap and they do provide some sustenance, but it’s actually not nutritious. It’s not going to keep people healthy.”
Smith seeks to partner with local organizations, like Bebashi, that address food insecurity as a potential opportunity to curb gun violence or impact how people recover after injury. Bebashi offers a food pantry where clients can select fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and non-perishable items.
The panel discussion comes as Philadelphia had more than 300 homicides for the year, according to police department data.
City councilmember Jamie Gauthier, D-3rd District, highlighted the importance of using the data provided by Smith to provide better services to the community.
“From a public officials perspective we need to use this data to help provide better services and access in our Black and Brown communities where we have a lot of insecurity,” she said. “I think that some of the things that we can use this data to do is to make more capital available for our ability to create better food options within communities. We can be more aggressive about trying to attract operators, in changing some of stereotypes that they may have around our neighborhoods.
“Obviously we have to invest in violence prevention and violence interruption on a short-term basis, but beyond that we need to be working to better fully change the trajectory of the lives of the individuals who are considered high risk,” said Gauthier, who is calling on Mayor Jim Kenney to declare a gun violence emergency in Philadelphia.
She said they need to go beyond thinking about violence prevention and interruption to providing essential services like food access, mental and behavioral health and rental assistance.
“These are key to making sure that our neighborhoods are stable, thriving and we’re changing the lives of people who are considered at risk,” Gauthier said.
As a kid growing up in North Philadelphia, Tyler A. Ray never understood why there were six funeral homes within walking distance in his neighborhood.
“When I became older I realized that if you lived in the inner city, especially if you are a Black male, if you’re not shot down on the street, you could die from either heart disease, kidney disease or complications of diabetes,” said Ray, who is a community organizer for Philadelphia Urban Creators.
“So that is something that triggered me to realize that there is definitely an issue. Now we can’t just say, ‘Oh, people are hungry, that is why they are killing each other.’ That’s not the main issue, but the huge issue is that there is not enough life-sustaining foods within Black and Brown neighborhoods.”
“Honestly, the answer to that is a lot more urban gardens and farms but that is not truly being recognized, I don’t think on the level that it should be by the city government,” Ray said.
He said that many people don’t know the legal stunts that they have to pull to gain ownership of the land that they are farming.
“One thing that we should definitely look to combat the food insecurity and gun violence is to allow communities to encourage community gardens and farms because not only do they grow fresh fruits and vegetables — they also serve as community centers,” Ray said.
Janice Tosto, Hunger Relief supervisor for Bebashi, discussed being innovative to help address the issue of food insecurity.
“I want to see things like mobile food markets,” she said. “I want to see more entrepreneurship. I want to see more young people with food carts.
“I also want to see more healthy food in our communities. I want to see more people growing their own food and selling food to each other.”