Northwest Housing Alternatives is working to include a community kitchen in new rural housing development

The rural community of Ontario, Oregon sits on the Idaho border about an hour from Boise. If you’ve visited there, you’ve probably been met by the delicious smell of french fries. That’s because the town is home to Ore-Ida, best known for its tater tots, french fries and other potato-based products. Beyond the potatoes, Ontario may surprise you.

Unlike many rural Oregon communities, Ontario is diverse. Almost 40 percent of the residents identify as Latinx. Ontario is also home to Japanese Americans and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. But like many rural areas, there is a lack of affordable housing and high rates of food insecurity.

Rural housing and nutrition needs

When you think of low-income housing do you picture a bustling city? What about when you think of hunger and food insecurity? The fact is that hunger and housing needs don’t stop at a city’s boundaries. Many people are unaware that rural residents struggle to access affordable housing and healthy food as much as those in urban areas. We have an image of rural America covered by farmland, but the people who work in the fields and grow the food that fills our grocery store shelves don’t always have access to it themselves.

Proposal links housing and hunger

Northwest Housing Alternatives (NHA) saw an opportunity to address Ontario’s housing and food needs in one project. NHA plans to turn a vacant senior care facility into affordable apartments. Fifty-six units will be available for low- and medium-income families. NHA’s housing development also includes a community kitchen, which will offer cooking and nutrition education classes to residents.

Clayton Crowhurst, a rural housing developer with NHA, is hopeful that the community kitchen will benefit local, small businesses as well as entrepreneurs. It will be available to rent for a low hourly fee and could be used by community members who need a commercial kitchen in order to make food products to sell at the local farmers market. Food banks will also be able to use the kitchen to make and distribute food.

Crowhurst’s goal for the kitchen is to create a “small community hub”; a place where community members can gather and receive support. He is excited about the opportunities this will bring to Ontario and believes it will support the residents on their journey to a healthier community.

The connection between housing, nutrition and health

Social and environmental conditions have huge impacts on health. Quality housing promotes health by ensuring that people have a safe place to live. Affordability means money can be spent on other important priorities, which often compete with housing costs.

When both housing and healthy food are too expensive, families often have to choose between the two. If housing wins, nutritious foods may be out of reach. A lack of nutrient-rich foods in the diet can lead to an increased risk for developing chronic diseases like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. If food insecurity persists, these risks can be passed on, setting up the next generation for poorer health outcomes.

Policies for improving health

NHA’s proposal is a step in the right direction in understanding how closely housing is connected to nutrition. However, much more work needs to be done to solve rural America’s lack of affordable housing and access to healthy foods.

One solution might be statewide policies that mandate government-funded housing developments include ways to increase access to healthy foods through community support and opportunity. Policies like these could improve health for thousands of low-income residents, for this and future generations.