Urban Food Deserts: Sustaining Solutions

In my previous article, I mentioned the importance of food sovereignty and knowing your impact on the food industry. Consumers have a choice to make when it comes to food, but what’s healthy and what’s easily accessible can be two very different things. Access to food depends on income, education, supermarket/store locations, and transportation, so it’s within these variables that we must find a solution.

A few years ago, I read an article by Rachel Estabrook titled, “There’s More to Fixing Food Deserts than Building Grocery Stores,” which really opened my mind to the concept of food sovereignty. This was during the time when I was participating in an ecology-based food course. My colleagues and I had been tasked with using the United States Department of Agriculture’s newly developed food desert map to explore the disparity in food quality and availability in certain neighborhoods.

According to the USDA, a food desert is “a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.” Based on census data, the USDA has reached the conclusion that around 23.5 million Americans live in areas without nearby supermarkets or other places where they can access fresh, nutritious foods.

Grocery stores reduce food waste by keeping rejected items for struggling families. Image via GoodWorks.net.au.

Fortunately, urban food programs and government initiatives are attempting to remedy the inequity in the food system. Recently, Pennsylvania has begun to build new food outlets and expand existing stores, ultimately providing healthy food access to about 500,000 adults and children. In Chester, Pennsylvania, non-profit grocery stores like Fare and Square offer lower prices to individuals below the poverty level, and it presents its consumers with a great variety of fresh, local products.

Maryland is experiencing similar changes, with groups like “Gather Baltimore” reducing waste and expanding fresh food availability by collecting food from farmer’s markets and local farms that would otherwise be wasted.Community gardens and cooperatives are also great alternatives to find soundly sourced food.

There are also policy changes occurring on the federal level. For example, The House of Representatives’ Farm Bill included a provision for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which designated $125 million towards expanding food resources in many of these food desert communities. But creating supermarkets and increasing availability is just one half to solving the food crisis – we need to change our habits as well.

Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, VA. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, VA. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Generations of food waste and consumption habits have altered consumer tastes and demands. In order to create a sustainable food future, consumers need to reduce their waste and make the change to demanding better quality food. Many people don’t know where or how to buy fresh or local items, which is why empowerment and education is imperative to creating the foundation for a sustainable food future.

A great example of this is City Harvest, a non-profit organization in New York City that works with local stores to teach owners and employees how to buy, store and advertise fresh produce to their customers. By including community members in the development of food and health programs, state and local governments can accurately account for their needs and tastes, working together to create a long-term demand for fresh, local, and sustainably grown food.

Feature Image: Detroit, Michigan is home to a notoriously large area of food deserts. Image via Flickr.

Copyediting by Daniel Cordero

About The Author

Alyssa Harding
Alyssa is a recent graduate of the Environmental Science program at the University of Florida, and is currently employed by a non-profit which promotes environmental campaigns and ecological stewardship. An active volunteer for various organizations, she aims to promote environmental conservation and education in an effort to create a foundation for a sustainable future. Alyssa specializes in food science and natural resource economics, and ultimately has her sights set on grassland ecology and regionally appropriate agriculture in order to remedy the inequity that permeates our global food system.