Defined as geographic areas where residents have restricted or nonexistent access to affordable, healthy food options (especially items like fresh fruits and vegetables), “food deserts” are a significant problem in the United States. According to the most recent study from the USDA, 39 million Americans live in communities where they must travel at least a mile (for people in urban areas) or 10 miles (for those in rural areas) to get to the nearest supermarket or large grocery store, making it difficult to obtain healthy food on a regular basis. Other studies have shown that the food desert phenomenon disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
In the face of these challenges, neighborhoods and municipalities all across the country are working hard to find innovative solutions that will improve residents’ access to fresher, healthier food. Read on for a look at how five different cities and states are tackling the food desert crisis.
Given the lack of convenient major grocery stores, many food desert residents have little choice but to buy their groceries at the local corner store, which is unlikely to carry much in the way of fresh food (particularly at an affordable price). Minneapolis sought to change this in 2012 by partnering with the city’s health department in the Healthy Corner Stores program, an initiative which gave corner store owners improved access to nutritious foods like fresh produce, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. The program helped corner stores to increase their healthy food inventory, display their healthy food options more effectively, and build relationships with local produce distributors and growers as part of a sustainable procurement system. One important result of the Healthy Corner Stores program was the adoption of the Staple Food Ordinance in 2015. This piece of municipal legislation requires licensed grocery stores like corner stores to stock a minimum amount of basic, healthy food items like fruits, vegetables, and eggs.
In food deserts, one of the biggest challenges is that healthy food options are simply too far away for residents to get to. But what if the healthy groceries could come to the residents? Through its Virtual Supermarket program, the Baltimore City Health Department is making online grocery shopping and delivery accessible to people who live in low-income areas or do not have vehicles. Operating in partnership with ShopRite, the program allows participants to order groceries online from any computer, as well as from certain designated sites (including public housing, low-income senior housing, and public libraries) where they can also pick up their groceries, at no delivery cost. For people who may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with online shopping, the program provides on-site staff and trained volunteers, known as Neighborhood Food Advocates, to help them through the process. Participants do not have to pay any registration or delivery fees, and because payment for groceries happens upon delivery, they are able to use their SNAP benefits (which are typically not usable for most online purchases requiring pre-payment).
Contributing to the problem of food deserts is the fact that many grocers who want to build or expand operations in underserved communities simply don’t have the means to do so. California FreshWorks, an innovative public-private partnership, aims to bridge this gap. A loan and grant program with an investment pool of more than $270 million, California FreshWorks provides financing to a variety of food enterprises working to increase access to healthy, affordable food in food deserts throughout California. The fund provides flexible capital to businesses and organizations that are not always able to obtain credit from traditional sources but are dedicated to making a positive difference in underserved communities.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are a hugely popular element of the local food movement, but because they ask consumers to share risks with farmers, they can be quite expensive. To make the CSA model more accessible, New Roots, a nonprofit organization in Louisville, recently launched its Fresh Stop Markets (FSM) initiative. FSMs operate on the same principles as a CSA—shareholders pay ahead of time to receive a weekly box of fresh produce throughout the growing season—but unlike most CSAs, FSMs employ an income-based sliding scale to determine the price of a share. In addition, they accept SNAP benefits. By leveraging the power of cooperative economics in this way, New Roots is working to realize its dream of making fresh food a basic human right.
Sometimes, a simple policy change can make a big difference in the fight to eradicate food deserts. In the city of Oakland, a $3,000 permitting requirement was preventing many small urban farmers from growing and selling crops locally. However, in response to the advocacy efforts of the Oakland Food Policy Council and many local residents, the city agreed to waive this fee in 2014. While it’s still too early to know what effect this decision will have on the city’s food deserts, a study cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that Oakland could produce almost half the vegetables consumed in the city if even 500 of its 800 acres of publicly owned land were farmed.