Cassia Herron

Food and Medical Deserts in America

Air Date: December 6, 2021

Louisville Association for Community Economics president Cassia Herron discusses grassroots organizing for food security and innovation.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest Cassia Herron. She is co-founder and president of the Louisville Association for Community Economics. She’s an abolitionist, a community organizer, an urban planner, a writer, and a consultant. Cassia, thank you so much for your time today.


HERRON: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Cassia, can you tell me about organizing during the pandemic, what it’s been like for nearly the past two years and how it compares to all of the admirable organizing work that you did prior to the pandemic?


HERRON: Thanks. That’s a great question to open us up. It’s been essential. Organizing during the pandemic has been essential. It’s been a way for folks to communicate with each other and stay up to date on all the things that are happening. It’s certainly come with a lot of challenges. It’s been hard to be in person. Luckily, we’ve been able to do some in-person things, but now we are certainly doing virtual and in person. We’re having a meeting tomorrow night and we’re trying to make sure that we accommodate everyone. So, teaching our elders and young people how to use Zoom and use their computers. I’ve been very adamant with people, we’ve got these phones and for whatever reason, we don’t like to call people. So picking up the phone and calling people and getting off social media has been a few of the ways in which we’ve been organizing during the pandemic.


HEFFNER: How much of your work has focused, during the pandemic and prior to the pandemic also, on food security and ensuring that people were fed and did not go hungry and have not been going hungry for the past two years?


HERRON: Yes. So I began my organizing career in food, in developing farmer’s markets in neighborhoods who had limited access to food, let alone local food. Here in Kentucky we really thrive, and we celebrate our, our farmers and our agricultural economy. And here in the city, we’re really excited about the opportunities to get access to local food, food that is grown, you know, not many miles away from us. Sometimes we know those farmers. And so during the pandemic it’s been the same way. We’ve been very intentional about making those connections about getting food from farmers directly to neighbors and being intentional about which farmers that we work with. We are certainly privileging working with black farmers, working with small minority farmers, women, farmers, young people. There are a lot of young farmers in our community. So we’ve been very adamant about making sure that we’re creating a market for their products. And we are grooming the market in the community by introducing people to that food.


HEFFNER: And what is your sense right now of the condition of food scarcity in, in food deserts and food insecurity, relative to the beginning of the pandemic, when folks were literally going through drive-throughs to get food because there were that many cars lined up, or citizens lined up on the street in need. Has the situation improved significantly since the worst of the pandemic?


HERRON: I would say that we’re in the midst of a transition. Our total, our world economy is in the midst of transition and our economy has been based on food, how we get food, how we do the very basic thing in a society. And so what I’ve seen is that we’re in this very entrepreneurial, innovative space where we’re trying to figure out how do we recreate the food system in a way that really serves people’s needs that also helps people make money and gets food, the best food, the highest quality food, to folks who have the least. So what we’ve seen is just a lot of different things that people are trying here in Louisville, as we are working to open the Louisville Community Grocery. We are about two years out, at least maybe 18 months. But we’re testing some new things.


So we are, we think that our deli is going to do a big business. We’re going to do like a restaurant kind of deli business in our deli, simply because there aren’t many restaurants in our communities and certainly not restaurants are serving a lot of good, healthy food. So we are starting to test out recipes. We’re going to be connecting with the community, asking folks, you know, if you come into the store, what kind of things would you want to buy? Food that’s almost cooked or already pre-prepared? And we’re going to be testing those recipes out in the community, having testing parties. I love food and I love music. So we’ll be inviting people to test those things out, so that when the grocery store opens, we have a number of recipes and meals that folks are ready to buy. What I’ve also seen is a lot of pop-up markets, people are using church parking lots, community centers, you know, the corners connecting with corner store owners to pop up kind of farmer’s markets in ways in which people can trade money and products.


HEFFNER: You have such a keen lens in the community as a grassroots organizer. And you’re describing from the ground up, how we’re attempting to eradicate hunger, how we’re trying to level the playing field so that children are not going to school hungry. So they’re going to school. We know that hunger is an impediment to children’s capacity to persevere through education. But, speaking from your political lens, in terms of seeing the challenges in Louisville and elsewhere in the state, and thinking about, you know, what ought to be adopted either in terms of state policy or federal policy that will bolster your efforts on the ground. Where is your mindset at now in terms of that kind of public or private sector intervention?


HERRON: Thanks. This is a great question. There are a lot of things that we should be doing right now. The whole divest and invest is real. We need to divest from systems that don’t work and invest in people-based systems, things that we know are going to connect directly with folks. So one of this is a big policy issue that I don’t know hardly anyone is working on, but we want to be able to deliver food to residents of households in our neighborhoods. And we want to make sure that we are delivering food to those who have limited resources. So people who are on using EBT or other government benefits, they can’t get food delivered. And oftentimes those are the folks who really need their food brought to them. And it’s a policy issue. Right now local state and federal policy law, largely federal policy does not allow us to put a kid on a scooter and drop a bag off and have that senior pay with her EBT benefits.


Right now companies like Walmart are able to do that in some markets. So the federal government is trying to figure it out and testing it out. But we think that they should be tested out in neighborhoods like ours, around projects that are innovative and that are really connecting directly with people and putting money in the hands of those that need it, not corporate grocery stores. So that’s one issue. Another issue is that again, related to people being able to use their government benefits, as I said, there’s a lot of innovation happening on the ground, ways in which people are selling food and the federal government and state governments need to work closer together to provide some initiative for folks to be able to use those government subsidies, because that’s what it is. The government is subsidizing fast food, very high-processed food. And what we’re doing is we’re buying whole foods from farmers and we’re processing that a little bit and getting it to people. We might just be buying it wholesale and selling it, but we’ve got to find a way and got to get rid of the red tape so that folks can use their benefits that they’re getting for these innovative projects that are meeting people where they are.


HEFFNER: What I hear you saying, Cassia, is that food delivery is often contingent upon socioeconomic status.


HERRON: Absolutely. Just agreeing.


HEFFNER: And during the pandemic, that likely is another explanation for disproportionate health outcomes. But let me ask you about the politics of organizing in rural America in what is a Republican-controlled state, although you do have a Democratic governor and there is something interesting just as in West Virginia, there’s a Republican governor, but a major Democratic Senator. In Kentucky, you have a democratic governor, two very strongly Republican senators in a state that voted for the Republican candidate, in a state, in a politics that generally is opposed to any kind of public sector or government intervention. But what have you been able to learn about those local investments and how they may resonate with rural communities, because economically the standard of living can improve as a result of investing in local, rather than what you were describing, using any subsidies towards the major food conglomerates and monopolies? Is there any kind of reckoning or resonance now in the wake of the pandemic, as we still recover from this pandemic and attempt to overcome it, ultimately that local investment when it comes to economics is going to rejuvenate communities and possibly lead to less inflation, less soaring, economic burdens for those communities? Is there any recognition of that or is that at all a reality?


HERRON: Absolutely. As I said, we are in an economic transition and there’s a lot of innovation happening on the ground. It’s not yet bubbled up to federal policy, however. So what we continue to see is folks on the local, on local level, putting their money together, putting their talents and resources together, connecting to do the things that otherwise wouldn’t do. So for instance, there’s a grocery store in a rural community in Kentucky owned by black woman, and yes, a black woman in rural Kentucky, she owned it. She owns an IGA and a local community development corporation was able to raise some money for her and allow her to invest in her business. So they were able to get her more energy efficiency equipment, that helped her save on her utility bills, and then allowed her to hire more people. A local a local entity loaned her money until she was able to you know, get that, give that money back. And so she’s been able to increase her labor. Her store is doing a lot better, it looks better. And that’s just because people were putting the, putting their money together on the local level, local foundations and investing in that. What would it look like if we had the ability for businesses across Kentucky to really invest in energy efficiency? How much would they save? How much would they be able to hire new people? Or increase wages? Which is what a lot of people are asking for folks are working. They’re just not able to pay for the things they want, they want to be able to pay for. So yes, we are seeing innovation on the, in the rural communities. I’ve had several communities call me about starting a cooperative grocery store in their community because they too have struggled with food access. There are counties, people who have to leave their county, leave the county line and go to a Walmart to buy food and groceries. That’s not the America that we, that we want to be, I don’t think. And it’s because there’s, you know, a few people who have most of the resources who are making most of the decisions. And I think that that’s, when you talk about the politics of our state and people love to call us a red state, and I continue to remind us that we still have more Democrats registered to vote than we have Republicans. And what that means to me is that we’re not reaching those Democratic voters. We’re not putting up candidates that those Democrats want to hear from. And so people are checked out. It’s not that we have more Republicans registered, it’s that people are just totally checked out. And so the Republican party is putting up people that their voters want to hear from. Unfortunately, Democrats have some work to do to make sure that we’re getting candidates that really reflect the diversity of our state.


HEFFNER: What does that work consist of? How do you accomplish that work, Cassia?


HERRON: Well, I’ve been telling people I’m really excited about the upcoming election season. Not because of the, we have a mayor’s race in, in Louisville. Charles Booker again is running for Senate, and those are exciting races, but there are tons of down-ballot races that are going to make it possible for those races to really have really good competition. So there’s council, Metro council here in the, in the city, there’s county councils in the counties. On their school board races. There’s all kinds of ways in which people can serve. And so my work has been engaging people and helping people to understand that we are the leaders that we’re looking for. The cafeteria lady that keeps that cafeteria clean and orderly and gets those kids in and out. She’s a leader in her community. She too can serve. We need people to help other people know and understand what the process is, and why it’s important for regular people, everyday folks, to be part of the decision-making on our local state and federal level.


HEFFNER: One of our guests several years ago was Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He told me recently, he was retiring from that post, but that conversation focused also on the politics of rural America and rural Kentucky specifically. And you’re saying that people of all political philosophies have a fighting chance. The perception that there is a permanence in the kind of Trumpism or conservatism of late is not accurate. And I just wanted to ask you if I’m reading you correctly, listening to you correctly?


HERRON: Yes, absolutely. That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that we have not put up the right candidates. We have not combed our community for leaders, for everyday leaders. There’s a lot of nepotism. There’s a lot of folks who have been you know, a part of their county’s leadership, a part of the good old boys’ network. And those are the folks who are being encouraged to run, because they have networks and because they have money. But there are so many other leaders in our community in Louisville in our cities, and, in our small communities. And I think I’m praying that those folks are starting to see and understand that there’s no Calvary coming. We’re it. I didn’t wake up and decided I wanted to open a grocery store. I decided I was going to open a grocery store because we needed one because the Kroger’s in our community was building larger and going out to the suburbs.


And what I saw was a gaping hole in our community. And I met tons of people who had been members of co-ops in other communities. And I learned, and I called people and I pulled some other people together. And we learned, and we called more people. And now we’re experts in the grocery business that haven’t even opened our grocery yet. We’re helping to support other co-ops across the country, and we don’t even have a location. So what that means to me is that leaders are, some of us are born, a lot of leaders are made. And it’s because they’re getting supported, because they’re being encouraged. And you know, people are just really stepping up and taking the risks. The risk is first to not to try. And we’ve been sitting back for a very long time waiting on the McConnells of the world to save us. And he’s not going to.


HEFFNER: Structurally, we know institutionally, systematically, there are those obstacles to reform. And I do want to ask you about your governor, Governor Beshear, because he is part of that nepotistic culture in the sense that he is the son of a former governor. He was Attorney General. If you want to call him an old boy, he’s still a younger fellow, not, not super old, but he’s part of a network that you described. So my question is when it comes to issues like food security and developing equity in a capitalistic system, right, I mean, ensuring a base level of equity in food distribution, in the restaurant industry and in the economy more broadly, is Governor Beshear an ally right now?


HERRON: I don’t know. I don’t know. I have not seen him shown up on this issue. I think he’s a compassionate, and I think that food security is an issue that he would love to solve. I have not seen him do anything specifically to help in that way. I think that there is some kind of weird stuff going on with the department of ag and the, and the governor’s office and there’s two candidates, two had been commissioners of ag who are probably vying for the governor’s seat. And so in that way, there’s competition. We have an 18-acre lot in the middle of our community in Louisville that has been empty for decades, for a couple of decades. And the latest owners were an MCO that is now being sued by other MCOs because literally they’re fighting over poor people. And so this property.


HEFFNER: Just explain MCO,


HERRON: So these are medical, these are the insurance companies. That’s, I’m sorry,


HEFFNER: Just for our viewers.


HERRON: So insurance companies, essentially, are vying for Medicaid patients. These are patients who are low income, who are on, on government assistance for, for health insurance. And so the big health companies are fighting for the percentages of who gets to serve those populations and get those government subsidies again.


HEFFNER: And you’re saying they own this vacant lot.


HERRON: One of them does, yes. One of them owns this vacant lot and the other ones are suing them. And so nothing is happening on this vacant lot. And the community hasn’t heard anything. And we haven’t heard from the governor, we heard from the governor when the MCO, when the company was going to build their headquarters there. But we haven’t heard from our mayor. We haven’t heard from a Metro council, people we have not heard from the governor about what’s going to happen with this vacant lot in the community. There’s tons of community groups that would love to see something happen. People want to see food on that location. And it’s been silent. We don’t know what’s happening. So that’s a role. That’s something easy that the governor could do is just tell us what’s going on and what he and his team are doing to make sure that that property is going to be good, used to good use, and that Medicaid patients are still going to be served.


HEFFNER: Do you think fundamentally Cassia, that it is a cultural impediment or obstacle to transforming into an electorate that is going to mobilize on these issues? Is it a kind of obstinance, is it a racialized cultural problem? You know, fundamentally you have to, as we close here, identify, I suppose, you know, what the chicken is and what the egg is, right, in, in pushing that resentment and resistance to reform. And we know that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both spoke about a corrupt system in 2016, and that resonated for a majority of the electorate. And yet we know that that agenda was never even pursued. It wasn’t undertaken in the least. Trump’s policies were not pushed forward in that way. Despite what he advocated for during the campaign, Sanders was not elected. And Biden while he might have taken ownership. Some of those ideas in terms of pushing back against the plutocracy and the kind of corporate oligarchy state of America, we know on questions of, of monopoly whether it’s food monopolies or tech monopolies, we are exactly where we were in 2016, if not more entrenched in that system. So I guess to close Cassia, is the cultural resistance racial, is it economic? What is sort of the most salient and observable resistance you find to reform?


HERRON: I just don’t think people believe. We’ve seen so much corruption. So that’s what people believe. We’ve seen so many vacant lots. So that’s what people believe. They don’t believe that that lot’s going to be anything. People don’t believe that we have good elected officials. And so my work is helping us to dream and imagine, and to see those things come to fruition. I did not wake up wanting to open a grocery store. And I’m adamant that we’ve got to get it completed so that we can do all the other things that need to be done in our community. We don’t know, we don’t know how to, because we don’t believe. And we don’t believe because we haven’t seen it done in our, in our lifetime. We, we hear these dreams, and we hear these stories, and we hear this history, and we hear just a little bit of the history. We don’t really hear the true story. And so my work, and the work of my friends and the people who are around me, and my neighbors, our work, is to help give inspiration. And we help give inspiration by doing. We have to do something. We spend a lot of time talking about the trash that’s in the ground, that’s on the ground versus just picking it up. And so I’m of the, the school that you do, the things that can’t be done. Somebody else can always do the other things, but who’s going to do the thing that can’t be done. And to me, that’s what real leadership is. And I think that we have tons of those leaders in Kentucky. We just have to help them believe that they’re the leader and give them the resources to get it done.


HEFFNER: And you really believe it’s about one grocer at a time. You know, and, and you are a testament to that tenacity to make that possible. But if there’s, there’s one thing that folks watching this, whether they’re in Kentucky or Nevada or New York, wherever they are in the country, if there’s one thing that you would say to help encourage the mobilization, whether that is a single grocer or mobilizing in the streets for legislative action, what would you impart, beyond believing that it’s possible, what would you impart about how they ought to be strategic? You know, we have elections, local elections coming up this, you know, this year. We have next year midterm elections. If there was any more strategic advice you would give them, beyond the clear inspiration that you impart, what would it be?


HERRON: Just show up. Show up to a meeting.




HERRON: Call your council person. Call whoever represents you. Show up. Everyone in their true selves when they show up, it matters. We all matter. Show up and ask the question. Show up and just be a body in the room and share that information with someone else. Oftentimes, you know, we assume that we don’t belong and sometimes they don’t want us there. But public meetings, show up, just show up, ask good questions. Something will happen. I promise


HEFFNER: Cassia, thank you so much for your inspiration and your story. And we will keep our viewers posted as to when you will be opening your grocery store. I hope that is sooner rather than later. And I commend you and hope that that happens expeditiously.


HERRON: Thanks so much for having me.


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