Seed to Plate: Food Deserts in the Heartland

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

Forty-four years ago, if you lived in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, you could accomplish most of your daily business right in your own community.

“It was like another Downtown,” says Nozella Brown, who remembers the grocery and clothing stores, the pharmacy, bank, and barber shops, the Velvet Freeze, the YWCA.

“You can still see signs of little stores that used to be there,” says Brown, who in the late 60s witnessed firsthand the effects of a textbook white flight from her Quindaro neighborhood and her city.

“We moved in and the signs went up. Businesses started leaving, and the money stopped coming in,” says Brown. What’s left is a small liquor store and a funeral home. No other businesses, not even a pawn shop.

But Brown stayed, and is now a county extension agent for the Kansas State Extension. She serves as a nutrition educator to about twenty families in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas. This is a daunting challenge in a food desert.

A food desert is a large geographic area with limited access to fresh, healthy foods. Populations in these under-served areas typically suffer high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases. Generally the only food available is of the  junk variety – convenience marts sell chips, soda and malt liquor, and fast food restaurants serve up high-fat, low-nutrient fare. Independent corner stores can’t offer quality fresh meat, produce and dairy foods at affordable prices, and major supermarket chains aren’t in a hurry to locate in low-income neighborhoods where many potential customers are on public assistance.

In a report released last week, the United States Department of Agriculture said “access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households.” According to the study, about 11.5 million low-income people in the United States live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

But for that “small” population, the social, financial, and health impacts are a big problem.

“They aren’t statistics,” says Brown. “If you see them as small percents, you don’t see them as faces and families and children.” says Brown. “We take it for granted because we don’t see it every day. We don’t want to see it, we prefer to think it’s one abnormal case rather than a whole community.”

From a practical standpoint, the degree to which the food desert affect is felt depends on whether or not one owns a car.

Erica Bush attends Brown’s nutrition class once a week at Juniper Gardens Community Center. She lives just over a mile from the nearest supermarket and uses public transit for most of her grocery shopping. But a trip to and from that neighborhood store can take up to an hour by bus if she’s lucky. If she takes along her nine- and two-year old children, if the bus is delayed or breaks down, if the weather is bad, it can take much longer. So even though she knows perishable foods like low-fat dairy, lean meat or frozen fruits and vegetables are her healthiest options, she can’t buy them because she never knows how long it will take to get home.

What’s more, shopping this way wreaks havoc on an already slim grocery budget.

On each trip, Bush buys only what she can carry home, making it impossible to take advantage of bulk pricing or sales on fresh produce. When she can get a ride, she tries to buy everything she can in that one trip, making for a pretty high grocery bill that she may not have planned for.

But Bush makes do. It helps that right in her back yard are Juniper Gardens’ community garden and farmers market. She has even taken over a plot of land and is growing food for the first time this season.

And Brown does what she can. The common myth is that cultural eating habits are bad, but, says Brown, “The traditional African American diet includes more greens and vegetables than a standard American diet. We interviewed kids in schools who said their favorite foods were greens!

“Our families want to know more, they want to do better,” says Brown. “More people want to attend our classes than we have personnel and time.”

Until the bigger problem is addressed, agencies in Kansas City and across the country are finding creative ways to get fresh healthy food to residents of food deserts:

Veggie Mobile, Albany, New York
A project of Capital District Community Gardens, the Veggie Mobile operates three days a week and makes stops at senior centers, public housing projects and densely populated areas of nearby cities.

City Market, Kansas City, Missouri
This year, the City Market began accepting cards issued under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known locally as the Food Stamp Program in Missouri and the Food Assistance Program in Kansas. Eligible items include fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, baked goods, jams and jellies
and honey.  The purchase of vegetable plants and potted herbs is also acceptable.      For information on applying for food stamp benefits, call 1-800-221-5689.

Green Carts, New York, New York
In February 2008, New York City’s health department increased the number of permits for Green Carts by 1000. The new permits are for mobile fruit and vegetable stands in low-income neighborhoods.

Town Farm Project, Peterborough, New Hampshire
The Town Farm Project is hiring local farmers to provide fresh produce, meat, milk or eggs to help feed the hungry. Organizers want to make sure food pantries or community kitchens, which typically rely on non-perishable goods, can provide fresh, local food and help boost local farms.

Farm to Folk, Ames, Iowa
Access is a problem in rural areas, too. Farm to Folk is a CSA that allows customers up to 30 miles away to order food on line for pick up at a nearby church.

Schnuck Markets, Inc., St. Louis, Missouri
A Schnuck’s store will open in downtown St. Louis later this year. It will be the neighborhood’s only full service grocery and pharmacy.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, California, Nevada and Arizona
Tesco PLC has opened 61 small grocery stores in upscale and under served areas.

Fresh Food Financing Initiative, Pennsylvania
Managed by The Food Trust, this initiative leverages public and private funds to create loans for supermarket development across the state. It provides incentive for stores to open and for small corner stores to get coolers.

Healthy Food Retailer Initiative, Hartford, Connecticut
Hartford Food System asked 40 small retailers to commit to shifting a portion of their shelf space from junk food to healthier choices in exchange for promotional assistance.


1 Comment »

  1. Heather, what a good article- I’m so glad you wrote it! The transition of that neighborhood, and others like it, from independent communities with grocery stores and home gardens to communities with little or no access is healthy foods is absolutely maddening. I really appreciated the voices of Erica Bush and Nozella Brown- thank you for sharing their experience and knowledge.

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