By Asha Kreiling
Have you ever seen fresh fruits and vegetables for sale in a convenience store? Oftentimes there’s nothing but a bountiful array of chips, candy and soda; but maybe you’ll find a sparse produce section with some drab, overpriced fruit of mysterious origins. Imagine if this and fast food joints were your only options for buying food — no Whole Foods, no Trader Joe’s, no Safeways, not even Walmart. This is the food landscape for over 23 million Americans.
“Food desert” is a term used to describe large urban and rural areas with little to no access to mainstream grocery stores that offer affordable, fresh, healthy foods. Instead, food deserts usually include copious fast food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores, all making high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods readily available. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area where residents in urban communities live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery, and residents in rural communities, 10 miles away from them. So, residents of these marginalized communities must travel to other neighborhoods to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, but with limited income, no car, and inadequate public transit to complicate things all the more. Those who are unable to access healthy foods, either physically or financially, turn to what’s within reach: packaged, processed, and all around terrible food.
Food deserts in America are typically in poor inner city areas with predominantly African American and Latino populations. Detroit, New Orleans and Oakland are all great examples. Grocery stores that may have existed before in these areas have either closed or relocated to more profitable neighborhoods in the suburbs; and food retailers avoid building new stores due to unattractive business prospects related to neighborhood zoning, low employment rates, low income levels, and high crime.
Not only are food deserts an inconvenience to residents, but the inaccessibility of affordable, healthy foods, and the overconsumption of junk and fast food put residents at risk of serious diet-related health problems including nutritional deficiencies, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Food deserts are a well known problem, but eradicating them is no simple feat. The USDA and Michelle Obama are paying special attention to boosting the food systems in these undeserved neighborhoods, and numerous grassroots, community-based projects are popping up all across the country to promote greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Here are some inspiring examples:
In Piety Hill of Detroit, where most residents are elderly and low-income people of color, a mobile produce truck named Peaches & Greens delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to residents throughout the city. Learn more here: http://centraldetroitchristian.org/what-we-do/economic-development-businesses/peaches-greens/.
In West Oakland, People’s Grocery is stimulating food justice with community cooking classes, nutrition counseling, and affordable produce boxes. The organization is working to secure funding to erect the People’s Grocery Market to provide healthy options for a community in desperate need. Learn more here: http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/12/18/for-oakland-food-desert-a-peoples-grocery-store/ and http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/.
In Boston, The Food Project employs organic, community-driven agriculture to promote local health and sustainability. Learn more here: http://thefoodproject.org .