Not all deserts are arid, sandy landscapes. Food deserts are urban or rural areas deprived of access to fresh, nutritious food. Convenience stores and fast food restaurants are more abundant and accessible than grocery stores. Food deserts are typically low income areas with residents who suffer health problems such as obesity.
USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income.
Public health officials have stepped up to combat the spread of food deserts by building new grocery stores in such deprived areas. In January, the House passed the anticipated farm bill which provides $125 million to fund the construction of healthy food retailers in food desert areas as part of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.
However, the solution is not so simple. New grocery stores do not directly reduce unhealthy habits, and not every neighborhood can afford to wait for new stores to be built. Business owners have teamed up with local farmers and nonprofits to bring fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat to the closest locations such as convenience stores.
One success story is the joining of Tricycle Gardens and the Quick Mart in Richmond, VA. Tricycle Gardens is a nonprofit committed to growing and sharing healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. According to nationswell.com, the union has created An Oasis in One of America’s Largest Food Deserts. The Quick Mart and other local markets receive a fresh stock of seasonal fruits and vegetables every week, which frequently sell out quickly. The nonprofit also hosts cooking classes to educate the community how to properly prepare the produce they purchase.
Sally Schwitters, executive director of Tricycle Gardens, believes change can happen with education. “The distribution is critical, but complementing that with education and outreach events — to show that preparing this great food can be easy and affordable, great fun and incredibly delicious — is where we know the changes that we hope to see can happen.”
Other cities across the nation also offer creative solutions. Seattle, Washington is home to the Beacon Food Forest, a large urban forest garden of free food. Beacon’s mission is to help end the struggle against hunger. Thier website advocates that “by building a community around sharing food with the public we hope to be inclusive to all in need of food.”
A major deterrent to the spread of food deserts is education and increasing the demand for healthy options. Partnerships between business owners, nonprofits, and creative individuals on a local and national level can continue to make change happen for a healthier future.
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Sarah is a self-proclaimed cat lady, chocoholic, beard enthusiast, and aspiring writer. She is currently a graduate student pursuing a Master of Professional Writing at Chatham University.