How to Support Fair Food Access
It’s an alcoholic’s nightmare (or dream), with over 200 selections of wine and beer arranged by country and color. Row after row of brightly colored packaged foods beckon me while canned provisions, condoms and over priced paper products give the illusion that all things can be found here. There is exactly one half aisle with fresh food. Apples, oranges, and single bananas fill one crate. Hard boiled eggs and bagels with cream cheese are sold individually. I can buy salad with iceberg lettuce and pressed ham for $6.99, while frozen pizzas are three for six bucks. There is no fresh meat here, only hot dogs and pre-cooked bacon. Coconut oil? Nope. Grass fed? Ha, that’s funny. Organic? Not even close. I live in an urban food dessert.
This deli mart and the gas station two miles away are the only places to buy groceries within 8 miles of my home. I’m thankful for my car.
The USDA identifies food deserts as low income areas where a significant number or share of residents is far from a supermarket, where “far” is more than 1 mile in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas, and recognizes vehicle access as a key barrier to accessing healthy foods. Millions of people live in food deserts around the nation. Small deli marts and bodegas in food deserts often have up to 30% markup, while fast food restaurant options are numerous and vastly cheaper. In rural food deserts, there are no grocery stores at all within 10 miles or more, and family farms are suffering.
I lived in a food desert for 3 years and didn’t even notice, because I have reliable transportation and a relatively robust food budget. My house sits right on the line between poverty and middle class homes. It’s not the cleanest or the safest area, but my rent is low and we’re happy with my son’s school- a rare find in the end of the city where all the schools are failing. What separates me from half of my community is that I have a certain level of privilege to shop at places like Whole Foods and even Trader Joe’s. I make recommendations to my clients about eating nutrient dense foods like grass fed meats and organic greens while many in my community can’t easily access those things.
I know that children thrive on a healthy diet of whole foods, low stress in their home, and plenty of sleep. Yet, it would be pretty obnoxious for me to make these recommendations to someone who has to journey across the city for two hours on bus and foot after work to get groceries on a tiny budget . This dichotomy has been bothering me more and more lately. We know that healthy food is vital for the development for the children in our communities. We know that epidemics of obesity, disease, low school performance and mental health issues cost us all as a society. We can trace these social problems to poor nutrition, and yet we haven’t taken a strong stance that nutrition should be a basic human right for every child. There is a frustrating lack of empathy and advocacy in health food communities towards these food access issues, and this is my call to action.
It’s easy to imagine myself without a car and with a much lower food budget. Even with full time job, I don’t have as much savings as I should and something as basic as a car accident could put me in a very different situation. Without some serious networking, I could easily be making a lot less money, even with my Human Services degree. Millions of people live on low wages, and don’t have daily lattes to cut back on, or salon trips to skip. For many people not much different from me, healthy food is not accessible because of cost, transportation, and access.
There are three other grocery stores in my area. Each is over 5 miles away. Some I can get to easily on a bus, but none of my preferred stores. The corner market will never be the best choice for my budget or by health but if I was walking, I’m certain I’d find myself there more often than I’d like. I can hear the paleo police already saying things like “OMG I would never feed my child a hot dog, think of the omega-6 and chemical sh*tstorm. Grow a garden, shop at the farmers market, make your own bone broth.” Those are all valid recommendations and I would do all of those things if I could get there, if I had land to plant on, if I knew how to keep plants alive, and if I weren’t totally and completely burned out after a 11 hour day with bus commuting, cooking dinner and helping my son with homework. If I had a little more energy, a little more money, and more transportation options, I’d thank you for your advice. But imaginary tired, broke Kellie only has words for you that I cannot print here.
According to the Urban Institute:
1) Low-income parents work a lot. Low wages explain why these families have low incomes.
2) Health problems are more prevalent among low-income families, and these families are more likely to be uninsured.
3) One-quarter of America’s children live in low-income families with a working parent.
4) Low hourly wages explain why these working families have low incomes.
5) Child care can be a large expense for low-income working families in which the mother works.
6) Health problems are more prevalent among low-income working families. On average, children in low-income households fare worse than children in higher-income households on a host of indicators.
Hundreds of thousands of children are being raised on free school lunch and frozen pizza because that’s the best a family can do. It’s not because they don’t know about Paleo. It’s not because they don’t care or they don’t have their priorities straight. There is a clear problem with income inequality and food access in our country. There is a lack of equity to food access, and there are barriers to growing food in many areas. I would be remiss to not acknowledge that institutional and structural racism are often at play in this dynamic as well. It’s no coincidence that most low income communities in American cities are also highly diverse, with many immigrants and ethnic communities represented. In any conversation about poverty there is much cross-sectionality of structural racism that perpetuates a competitive spirit of “every man for himself” even when the playing field isn’t level. It’s also not a coincidence that a majority of healthy food bloggers, health coaches and movement leaders are white people from middle to high income brackets. We need to pay attention to this, and then use our voice to raise awareness in our communities as well as those communities we don’t hang around in.
Food is sacred. Food is at the heart of culture, art, politics and war. The right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food is a basic human right for all. We all have a right to grow our own food and live sustainable lives. Access to healthy foods, is a right that some are fighting for, some are apathetic about, and some are so far from the reality of it that it’s difficult to imagine abundance. Fortunately, there are many who are acting on this issue and you can get involved.
5 ways you can support fair food access:
Plant an extra row. Friends share their abundance with others. It costs pennies to plant an extra row of crops to donate to the community. You can spread your abundance by linking with a food bank to share your harvest with those in other neighborhoods who may have a greater need.
Don’t have a garden? Find out how you can participate in community gardens and other shared gardens. Volunteers often take home a share of the crops. These kinds of community efforts go a long ways toward educating the public, opening access, and creating a voice for gardeners.
Learn and share traditional knowledge. Native Americans and other cultures have a leg up on sustainable fishing and hunting, growing cycles, and permaculture. Listen to your neighbors or reach out through technology to find experts who aren’t paid by a food lobby. Help to give these stewards voice by sharing their knowledge and using practices that are more sustainable. Kombucha brewing, square foot gardening, and hunting for food are all sustainable practices that have gone out of style in many communities. Let’s bring them back!
Volunteer to teach a class at your local library or community center on how to cook low cost healthy meals or recipes for local produce that is easy to grow.
Get involved in local food politics. Together we can place providers and consumers at the center of decision making and local control of food. Becoming an advocate for fair food access and the right to grow our own foods is a powerful way to be a good steward of the earth and the healthy food movement. The right to non-GMO foods, and the right to know what is in our food are central in these movements.
Help your friends and neighbors. If you have a car you can offer to help someone get to a grocery store, or pick up some items for them when you go. Organize a bulk meat buy or ask your local farmer for a wholesale rate if you can get a group together to split the duties of pickup, packaging, and payment.
I’ve made a commitment. Every time I make a recommendation to our friends, neighbors and clients about healthy foods, I will also take a moment to think about those who don’t have it as easy as I might. When I teach a class, I will provide scholarships and information about community gardens and food sharing programs. I will share my fruit tree harvest. I hope you join me. With this groundswell of awareness and compassion, we can act to make a difference.
Check out the USDA atlas to see interactive maps that document food deserts here.
How to Support Fair Food Access Article by Kellie Morrill