Making Food Deserts Bloom

Finding fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods can be a struggle, but community efforts are striving to fill the void.

Corner stores, like this one on the south side of Chicago, face challenges in stocking fresh, quality, affordable produce.

In low-income urban, particularly African-American, neighborhoods across the country, you can often go dozens of city blocks without encountering a fresh vegetable or a piece of fruit.

That’s largely because major chain grocery stores have deemed it uneconomical to do business in these neighborhoods. Corner stores, ubiquitous in low-income neighborhoods, stock mostly processed packaged snacks, and smaller independent groceries often have sub-par offerings, many past their peak.

For people living in America’s food deserts, there is generally a high incidence of diet-linked health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

A distance of several miles to a grocery store, which might not seem like a big deal in a more affluent area, becomes a problem for people who don’t have cars or access to quality public transportation, and who may be at risk while making long treks on foot through crime-plagued streets.

“There is a tremendous lack of fresh produce in these neighborhoods,” said Jacquie Berger, executive director of the New York nonprofit group Just Food. “There aren’t many full-service groceries, and even if there are the produce tends not to be great. Everyone goes to the bodegas, with notoriously bad, overpriced produce. You get four peppers wrapped in plastic, and one is rotten.”

Mapping Food Deserts

A study released in April tracking food access in Chicago and its suburbs found that low-income communities lack access to full-service grocery stores, and the situation is getting worse. In the mostly African-American neighborhood of Riverdale on the far south side, a resident would have to travel on average 3.2 miles to reach a major grocery store.

“Daniel Block, an associate geography professor at Chicago State University who co-authored the study, says that chains such as Cub Foods, Jewel, and Dominick’s have closed many urban locations in the past two years.

“These companies are financially scrunched. They need to be specific about where they’re opening, and they don’t want to change their model much,” he says.

Block adds that many small independent grocery stores are converting to dollar stores that carry little or no fresh food. An increasing number of small discount grocery stores such as Aldi and Food 4 Less have opened in urban Chicago neighborhoods, offering some fresh produce, but far from an ideal or high-quality selection.

However, Block’s study found that some immigrant communities, particularly Latino enclaves, still had ample access to fresh produce thanks to local ethnic markets and street vendors. The relatively low-income, largely immigrant neighborhoods of Pilsen and Uptown in Chicago boasted fresh produce within only a quarter-mile on average. But a full-service grocery store was still more than a mile away for Pilsen residents.

(This is not true in every city; immigrant neighborhoods in other major urban areas do suffer serious lack of access to fresh food.)

Block noted that even with local produce outlets, residents interviewed in Chicago immigrant communities feel they still suffer from the lack of adequate grocery stores. Partly because of community pride, they want their neighborhood recognized as worthy of mainstream investment. Local stores are also unlikely to stock organic produce, tend to charge higher prices, and generally carry produce that is slightly less fresh than at chain grocery stores with more efficient economies of scale and delivery systems.

A 2004 report in the “Food for Every Child” series by the Food Trust in Philadelphia notes the city has the second-lowest per-capita number of supermarkets nationwide. Based on a 1995 study of 21 metro areas by the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, the report says Philadelphia has 70 too few supermarkets to serve the city’s low-income communities. The Food Trust uses statistical mapping methodology to track supermarket prevalence in relation to income, auto ownership, and other factors. Using 1998 city data on mortality, the study found there were 7,586 diet-related deaths per square mile in the city, including stomach, cardiovascular, and other diseases. The rate of such deaths was notably higher in low-income, supermarket-deprived areas.

In a 2004 survey of more than 10,000 Philadelphia households, the Food Trust found that more than 30 percent of African Americans reported fair- or poor-quality grocery access, compared to 24 percent of Latinos, 15 percent of Asians, and 11 percent of whites. Adults in fair or poor health were twice as likely to report fair or poor access to groceries compared to adults in good health. At that time, about 71,000 Philadelphians reported having a hard time finding fresh produce in their neighborhood, according to the Food Trust. It is not surprising that lower-income residents in the grocery-deprived areas were also significantly more likely to eat takeout or fast food more than three times a week.

CSAs, Urban Gardens, Growing Power, Fighting Worms

Fortunately, a wide and growing number of government- and nonprofit-funded and purely grass-roots projects across the country have coalesced into a movement known as sustainable “food justice” and “food security,” promoting access to fresh, often organic produce in low-income areas and, in many cases, also creating job opportunities and a holistic connection with food production for residents of these communities. This is part of a growing trend of “sustainable agriculture;” sustainable in at least two senses.

First, when produce is grown on small organic farms or in community gardens, it is ecologically sustainable as opposed to large-scale corporate monoculture that relies heavily on pesticides and herbicides and leaves soil depleted. And when food is grown locally, it avoids the emission of greenhouse gases and other ills associated with long-distance transportation.

Second, these projects are economically sustainable for low-income communities, because they are operated on a small scale with a sense of purpose and hence not obligated to turn a significant profit to justify their existence — though it would be preferable for the often-volunteer participants to earn more income from them. Major grocery chains bound to a bottom-line analysis, by contrast, are usually extremely reluctant to open branches in disinvested neighborhoods, and they are liable to pull out quickly if business is not going well.

Small-scale community projects are usually designed to operate on a shoestring budgets and are are mission- rather than market-driven, funded by grants, government subsidies, and donations.

Community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs) often stem from such community action. A typical CSA involves a small farm in or near an urban area that has subscribers pay a seasonal fee for weekly deliveries of mixed produce (often along with organic eggs, coffee, and other goods). Many CSAs charge higher prices to people who can afford it — usually asking subscribers to voluntarily identify themselves as capable of paying a higher price to help subsidize free or low-cost deliveries for low-income people. Some CSAs include programs that bring urban youth and adults to the farms to work and learn.

Meanwhile, community gardens and indoor urban agriculture projects foster the production of fresh produce right in an urban neighborhood and sometimes generate income for community residents. The NGO Heifer Project International funds various urban agriculture projects in low-income U.S. communities, similar to their food-security efforts in developing countries. A staple of such projects are worm compost bins, where natural food waste and table scraps are composted with the help of worms to create a rich, loamy soil that can be sold or used for gardening. Participants in those projects also often raise tilapia — a hardy fish with market value — in indoor bins, and even cycle the water from the tilapia projects through organic vegetable beds for natural filtration, creating a sustainable self-contained system.

In Chicago, retired postal carrier Carolyn Thomas involves young people from public housing and other marginalized neighborhoods in farming through God’s Gang — a positive alternative to the street gangs which might otherwise claim their attention. God’s Gang farms five acres in southwest Michigan and also helps raise and sell free-range poultry from a central Illinois farm. The young people sell the produce at farmers markets in low-income, vegetable-poor areas of Chicago, as well as to some local stores, and bring healthy food home to their families. Already this year the group has planted 250 pounds of garlic, which should yield a 1,000-pound harvest.

“Any time you get them outside it’s great,” said Thomas. “My motto is, ‘Leave no child inside’” — a play on President Bush’s education slogan. Meanwhile, the yard of Thomas’s South Side home is a labyrinth of organic vegetables, herbs, ducks, and chickens, all cared for by local kids.

God’s Gang tended worm-compost bins and tilapia in the violence-plagued Robert Taylor Homes high-rises until the buildings were closed and torn down as part of the city’s plan for transformation of public housing. Residents — and the worms — remained in the development after being ordered out by the housing authority. A banner was hung outside the condemned building pleading for the life of Robert Taylor’s “Fighting Worms.” The worms and tilapia finally froze to death just before Christmas in 1999 after the housing authority shut off the power.

Thomas continues the compost and tilapia projects in other locations.

“They do everything from making their own soil to composting it to raising vegetables to eating them to sharing them with their neighbors,” she said.

The Chicory Center, based on the same southwest Michigan farm as God’s Gang, operates a CSA on a shoe-string budget, delivering organic produce to paying subscribers and free deliveries to immigrant families in Chicago. Chicory Center founder David Meyers also uses the organization as a vehicle for social justice, donating proceeds from his fair-trade coffee sales to various local activist groups and including leaflets about political prisoners and community struggles along with recipes in his CSA deliveries.

And in Milwaukee, Will Allen, who once played for the now-defunct American Basketball Association, runs the organization Growing Power, a farm within the city limits that sells food to upscale Chicago restaurants. Growing Power has trained more than 1,000 low-income kids in farming and now employs more than 50 young people in Chicago and Milwaukee doing outreach, education, farming and other jobs.

Fresh Produce: Healthier Corner Stores

Meanwhile, in cities from New Orleans to Boston to Oakland, nonprofit and government-funded programs are striving to improve the availability and quality of produce in small neighborhood groceries, colloquially (and often literally) referred to as “corner stores.”

The national Healthy Corner Stores Network counts 200 member organizations in different cities, which use grant funding to urge corner stores to stock and advertise healthier fare. In New Orleans last fall, Dora’s Supermarket in the Bywater neighborhood hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina became the poster child for a joint project of the city government and Louisiana Public Health Institute to place fresh fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy and whole-grain products in corner stores. Since New Orleans lost 21 of its 36 major grocery stores in Katrina, corner stores have been a staple food source for residents of all income levels.

In Washington D.C., a similar program involves the Korean American Grocers Association, the city health department, and various community groups.

“It wasn’t as hard as you might think to convince owners to participate,” says Hannah Laurison, a senior associate at Public Health Law and Policy, one of the conveners of the Healthy Corner Stores Network. “One of the challenges for advocates is to create sustainable projects to get the stores to do it themselves,” adding that shop owners are often under the mistaken impression that local residents aren’t interested in fresh produce.

“We’ve done focus groups with low-income residents who said their corner stores didn’t sell quality products, they’re too expensive, unsafe and unclean, so they’re getting on buses to get fruit and vegetables. But the store owners said residents didn’t want fruit and vegetables, only alcohol and cigarettes — so there is a gap there.”

“A 2003 report by California Food Policy Advocates describes large unmet market demand for fresh produce in low-income urban areas nationwide, and prescribed market-based solutions including investment by major chain grocery stores and the conversion of corner stores currently specializing in liquor into small groceries.

Food Justice

In New York City, the group Just Food offers a range of programs to support fresh-food access and community economic development. They play matchmaker to connect regional farmers with community organizations to run CSAs — with a total of about 60 CSAs running in all five boroughs. Their City Farms program has helped start more than 600 community gardens including a “training trainers” program where low-income residents receive a stipend to train other locals in gardening.

Additionally, a market program helps community gardeners set up and run their own farmers markets, including helping them obtain insurance, meet city codes, and set up systems to accept food stamps. The City Chicken Project, supported by Heifer Project International, helps low-income people and groups set up humane chicken-raising operations, with initial gifts of coops and chickens that the groups later pass on to new chapters. Just Food’s Community Food Education Program trains people in cooking healthy meals, with a focus on cultural and family culinary traditions. A Food Pantry program connects regional farmers with food pantries. And finally, the group’s Food Justice Program works on policy including the federal farm bill and other legislation to facilitate sustainable local agriculture.

“Our theme is that fresh, locally grown produce should be available to everyone,” said Berger. She adds that there is clear demand in low-income neighborhoods for fresh produce, as demonstrated by the success of farmers markets the group has helped start in the South Bronx, Harlem, and central Brooklyn.

“Once we bring in these farmers markets, they just grow and grow,” she said.

A West Indian immigrant in her late 70s went through Food Justice’s training and now gives presentations on making healthy baby food at farmers markets around the city. Food Justice initially paid her $100 for two-hour workshops, and now she commands similar rates for presentations she sets up herself.

In San Francisco, a city-funded pilot project, San Francisco Victory Gardens, was launched in 2007 and is helping residents of all income levels grow vegetables in their own yards. The project is based on the Victory Gardens movement during World Wars I and II, when city dwellers supported the war effort by growing their own food, freeing up farms to feed the troops. The San Francisco project gives participants, including low-income residents in the Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhood, a starter kit and lessons in gardening and seed-saving. In a city short on open space, the effort focuses on using rooftops, window boxes, and yard space for growing vegetables appropriate to the local micro-climate.

The project is largely designed by Amy Franceschini, an accomplished artist who views urban agriculture as a form of exploring “the politics of space” and the effects of globalization.

“It’s reminiscent of the early conversations about recycling,” garden education program manager Blair Randall says of the project. “You think what difference does one garden make? But if someone can grow a small amount of greens, that’s food not being transported all those miles. It’s freedom from food made with values we don’t support.”

Randall notes that compared to the World War eras, when city residents weren’t far removed from their families’ farming roots, many urbanites today are completely disconnected from the land.

“When people know more about the growing of food, the back story of plants, they get more interested in food itself,” he said.

Block and other advocates note that the web of health and economic problems afflicting disinvested, segregated low-income communities is too wide and complex to be solved by local community-agriculture projects alone.

“You need a lot more than that,” said Block of farmers markets, CSAs, and the like. “But these things build community connections, and bring in produce that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If you think of building healthier communities on a broader level, they really are important.”

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