Food deserts disproportionately affect low income and marginalized communities throughout the United States. Lack of access to fresh and affordable healthy foods, commonly fruits and vegetables, is the reality that over 20 million Americans live through every day (Economic Research Service, 2011; Loots, 2013). The nearest full-service grocery store in these areas is at least one mile away in more urban settings and ten miles away in more rural settings. As a result, the individuals in these communities rely on fast food restaurants and convenience and corner stores because for some, acquiring a means of transportation is not possible. When simply looking at this problem at the surface level, the solution might seem simple: increase investment from larger supermarkets in these areas. If it were that simple and straight forward, chances are that would have happened already.
It is important to remember that these are businesses and one of their ultimate goals is to make a profit; from their perspective, investing in a lower income community would not do anything to increase their profit margin. This is most definitely the case with larger chains like Safeway and Whole Foods, whose products are targeted to attract a wealthier population. Not having proper “…transportation and mobility to reach nutritious food is then the first barrier…” that prevents people in food deserts from having greater autonomy and variety in their food options (Tobin, 2017). It seems that encouraging chain grocery stores to invest and establish location in these communities might not be a sustainable practice to reduce food deserts throughout the nation.
Studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection.”Food Empowerment Project, 2019
We have to find a way to involve the community and engage its citizens. As per our definition, “[s]omething is sustainable if its initiatives, actions, or impacts serve to meet the social and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own…” This process of sustainability can often times start with and continuously build up one person’s individual action. Some might argue that actions initiated by community members are sustainable because they come from someone who sees where improvement can happen within their community. As stakeholders in any changes that occur, they might be more inclined to look at all options when designing a plan to act. With regard to food deserts, individual action and community engagement in this cause are the first steps to ameliorating the problem.
One example of this took place in West Oakland (Oakland, California). In a community where over 50% of residents do not have a car, making a 1.5-mile trip to the nearest grocery store is a struggle. Brahm Ahmadi engaged with private and public investors to raise money to construct a grocery store – the People’s Community Market– within the community (Finz, 2013). Ahmadi chose to engage organizations that are dedicated to bringing healthy foods to underserved communities. In a food desert in Montbello (Denver, Colorado), residents came together to with their district representative to bid on property for the local grocery store. A small market opened up during the summer of 2017, serving fresh produce in one part of the city; since then, the Montbello Organizing Committee’s grocery store proposal received funding from various outside organizations (McCormick-Cavanagh, 2018).
“We deploy an array of grant-making and social investing tools – usually in partnership with nonprofit, public, private and philanthropic organization – to address society’s most intractable problems.”The Kresge Foundation, http://kresge.org
It is also important to note that in order to take action against these disparities in access and availability, it takes more than one person; there is power in numbers, and often times a community effort is the best approach. Urban agriculture, or a community garden, is another way communities can come together to combat food deserts. According to one study, people who participated in or had access to a community garden consumed a greater amount of fresh vegetables than those without access to that resource (Urban Farming, 2012).
In Washington DC, a nonprofit organization called DC UrbanGreens runs an urban agriculture site, educates community members about health eating habits, and encourages involvement in the garden’s maintenance. Children can come and learn about how the plants grow and can get involved in something that will benefit themselves and future residents (Epatko, 2016). Taking our definition of sustainability in account, these examples of individual action and community involvement can be used to ameliorate the effects of food deserts. Community initiatives to develop their own supermarkets are a feat that will carry on for years to come and continue to benefit future generations. Access to healthy, nutritious foods for all within their surrounds would work wonders.
Resources to guide individual action:
- The National Healthy Corner Stores Network: “The national Health Corner Stores Network supports efforts to increase the availability and sales of healthy, affordable foods through small-scale stores in underserved communities.”
- American Community Garden Association: “The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) is a bi-national nonprofit membership organization of professionals, volunteers and supporters of community greening in urban and rural communities.
- FreshWorks: “California FreshWorks is a loan and grant program that provides financing to food enterprises who are working to increase access to affordable, healthy food in low-income and underserved communities in California. We work with a variety of businesses that grow, aggregate, distribute, and sell healthy food in a way that builds a sustainable food system and reaches people in need.
- Second Harvest Food Bank: “Second Harvest is committed to providing free healthy food to anyone in need.”
“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far reaching effects.”
– Dalai Lama
Economic Research Service. (2011). Mapping Food Deserts in the United States. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2011/december/data-feature-mapping-food-deserts-in-the-us/
Epatko, L. (2016). D.C. urban gardens bring low-cost fresh produce to the city’s food deserts. PBS.Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/urban-gardens-grow-residents-devotion-in-dc
Finz, S. (2013). West Oakland supermarket shops for funds. San Francisco Gate. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/West-Oakland-supermarket-shops-for-funds-4292021.php#ixzz2LSi1Y6bg
Loots, N. (2013). Five Innovative Solutions From “Food Desert” Activists. FoodTank. Retrieved from https://foodtank.com/news/2013/05/five-innovative-solutions-from-food-desert-activists/
McCormick-Cavanagh, M. (2018). Food Desert Montbello a Step Closer to Building Its Own Grocery Store. Westword. Retrieved from https://www.westword.com/news/food-desert-montbello-a-step-closer-to-building-its-own-grocery-store-11060277
Tobin, B. & Weaver, B.L. (2017). Health and Socioeconomic Disparities of Food Deserts. Duke University. Retrieved from https://sites.duke.edu/lit290s-1_02_s2017/2017/03/04/health-and-socioeconomic-disparities-of-food-deserts/
Urban Farming. (2012). The Urban Farming Coexistence Model. Urban Farming: More Than A Gardening Organization. Retrieved from https://www.urbanfarming.org/urban-agriculture.html