Dr. Hilary Seligman’s work on food insecurity began with a patient. When she asked a man she had just diagnosed with prediabetes what she had for lunch, he said: a piece of spam between two cinnamon rolls. She was filling up and it was the only thing she could afford.
Seligmann40 years old, he is a professor of medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF and is on the faculty of Center for Vulnerable Populations at San Francisco General Hospital. She is also a food policy expert, collaborates with the Centers for Disease Control and Feeding America, and is the founder of Eat SF, which works to get healthy foods into the hands of low-income residents. He says 1 in 4 San Franciscans is food insecure.
EatSF has pioneered Vouchers 4 Veggies (V4V), which gives attendees access to fresh fruits and vegetables at reduced cost or free. V4V also operates as a pilot program in Los Angeles. The organization also works with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.
A Houston native, Seligman arrived in the Bay Area in 2000 to complete her internal medicine residency at UCSF, and she never left. She is a member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
Tell me how the EatSF program works.
EatSF is a healthy food stamp program. We create the financial infrastructure for community-based organizations and clinics in San Francisco to provide a voucher. Think of it like a recipe for fruits and vegetables. When a doctor writes you a prescription, there’s an infrastructure in place for you to take that piece of paper, that electronic prescription, to a pharmacy where that prescription is filled. When I thought as a doctor what it would take to achieve [patients] healthy food, there is no such system. So what we’ve decided to do is create that infrastructure. You can take that coupon to your local community market or grocery store or farmers market, and they’ll recognize it and allow you to redeem it for healthy foods.
What makes food insecurity different in the Bay Area?
Any area that has a very high cost of living will have a high food insecurity rate because people’s budgets are limited. The more money you spend on rent, the less money you have to spend on your food. This is one thing that works against us in San Francisco. There are plenty of opportunities in San Francisco as well. We have grocery stores and farmers markets in almost every area of the city. We also have a lot of people in the community who are really committed to advocating for better dietary intake and healthier food access for everyone in San Francisco. [EatSF’s] The goal is for every person in San Francisco, regardless of their income, race, or religious background, to have access to healthy fruits and vegetables.
Because it’s important?
We have an obesity and diabetes epidemic in the United States. That epidemic is really being driven by the flood of empty calories that are available in our food system and the marketing of these foods to people in every sector of our environment. Unsurprisingly, people’s intake of healthy foods has dropped significantly over the past 40 to 50 years. Unsurprisingly, obesity and diabetes also skyrocketed during that time. We have a huge food system problem.
EatSF is supported by foundations and individual lenders. What can ordinary people do to help fight food insecurity in their communities?
You can support your local food bank. You can make sure you talk to your elected officials about the importance of food insecurity in your district. There are people who are food insecure in every borough of San Francisco and every county in the Bay Area. It’s really important to remind our elected officials that we think this issue is important. We can vote for leaders who share our concerns about food insecurity. We are the wealthiest nation in the world and for one in 10 households in the US to report that they are food insecure I think it is a real shame for the US. We really need to make sure we vote to support policies that help people become more food secure.
Do Jewish values influence what you do?
My work is influenced by my Jewish upbringing, which emphasized empathy, collaboration, community and, of course, tzedakah. Judaism also emphasizes the value of simple kindness to sick people, which includes, of course, something to eat.