Increasing Access to Healthy Food is Difficult, Not Impossible

my subway stationGrowing up in Arizona, the move to Queens, New York my junior year of college was a major culture shock. After visiting NYC a few times throughout my life, I decided to take advantage of my school’s unique exchange program, which allows students to study in other places in the country, rather than going abroad. I knew I wanted to be as close to Manhattan as possible, so I ended up at Queens College in Flushing, NY. I soon found out that there are many differences between big city life and my suburban upbringing. The main one being I no longer had a car of my own to get around, which posed a problem I never had to think about before- I had to rely on public transportation and my own two feet to get around. I quickly learned where the closest bus stops and subway stations were, but I also needed to figure out where I could buy food. This seemed to be the toughest problem. In Queens, as in many city locations, instead of driving to my local grocery store or farmer’s market, I had to walk to a bus stop, ride the bus for 20 minutes, and walk another 15 minutes to Target (which had a limited grocery section) in order to purchase food. This was a task that I came to dread. Public transportation was so crowded that I sometimes had to wait for multiple busses to pass until one had enough room for me to get on. This meant the ride home, with bulky armfuls of groceries was even more daunting. It blew my mind that my whole community was living like this.

Because I was frustrated by making this journey so often, I decided to do a little research on the issue, and came to learn that I was living in a food desert.

phonto (3)Food deserts, like poverty, affect people all over the country in both urban and rural communities, and are categorized as low-income areas with low-access to a grocery store or market. In Maricopa County alone, there are 55 food deserts and 1 in 5 Arizonans lives in poverty. So what does that mean for these residents? It means that instead of having a reliable car to use for grocery shopping, residents must resort to using public transportation, bicycles, or walking to grocery stores that are miles away. While small pushcarts can be used to carry food, these carriers and transportation options limit the amount that can be purchased. This can be a real issue when trying to buy adequate food to feed a family even for a few days. Fresh produce can be bulky and heavy, and frozen fruits and vegetables can begin to defrost on the journey home. At this point, the decision must be made between healthy food, and food that’s easily accessible.

In most food deserts, while grocery stores are few and far between, convenience stores and fast food restaurants are plentiful. An article from the Harvard School of Public Health found that convenience stores and fast food establishments tend to locate more in low-income neighborhoods and near schools, making it much easier to buy food there, instead of at a grocery store. As a result, these options are often used as the main food source for families and individuals in food deserts.  This means eating highly processed, packaged foods, high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats, and it means fresh produce is limited to pre-packaged items such as salads and sandwiches. It’s no secret that eating this type of food without the addition of fresh produce can lead to health issues, not to mention, an all-around crummy feeling.

So what's being done to combat food deserts in Arizona? Programs such as Kitchen On The Street and Fresh Express by Discovery Triangle Development Corporation use mobility as ways to reach out to as many children and families in need as possible.  Kitchen On The Street’s food truck acts as a mobile classroom to teach children about nutrition and healthy cooking and to teach valuable job skills to adults.

fresh express busFresh Express uses a refurbished city bus to travel to community hubs in order to provide fresh produce and health and wellness resources to communities located along the Lightrail corridor in Phoenix and Tempe. In addition, they accept SNAP/EBT to help low-income families pay for their services.

Recently, the Navajo Nation passed the Healthy Diné Nation Act, which not only places a 2 cent tax on anything deemed to have “minimal-to-no nutritional value” (sodas, snack cakes, chips, fried foods, candy, etc), but also lifts the longstanding tax on fresh produce. The money raised from the junk food tax will go towards funding educational health and wellness programs for those living on the Navajo Reservation.

Education programs are a crucial element in eliminating food deserts. Fresh Express Executive Director, Elyse Guidas comments, “In areas where healthy food is scarce, many individuals are not familiar with recipes, preparation techniques, or the importance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into their diets. Nutrition education is key to getting residents to not only purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, but also to prepare and eat them as well.”

It’s also important to understand that simply adding in more supermarkets, and creating higher access to fresh produce is not the only step necessary to combat food deserts.  In an interview with PBS Newshour, Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says there needs to be a sense of community connection the shoppers feel in addition to having produce available.

growhouseOne of the easiest ways to create this essential sense of connection is through community gardens, like Downtown Phoenix's Roosevelt Row Growhouse. They provide information on desert gardening, healthy eating, and edible landscaping and source their produce to local markets and restaurants. When the neighborhood takes part in the entire process, from seed to table, they experience working toward a common goal. Neighbors can share recipes, learn new gardening techniques, and kids are more likely to try something new if they’ve helped in its growing process. Check out the University of Arizona’s Community Garden Directory to find one near you!

As individuals, we can make a real impact. Elyse from Fresh Express gives great insight on how we can take this issue and make it personal:

  • Chat with community members and neighbors about their involvement in community gardens and other nutrition programs
  • Attend city council meetings, where you can learn about zoning for community gardens if there aren't any near you
  • Find out how others in your neighborhood access food and maybe offer to help those without a vehicle purchase a few healthy options

“I think people often feel like we live in such a big area that it is difficult to find out what is going on or know how their voice can make a difference. But the momentum to increase food access in underserved areas is out there; you just have to plug into it.”

The issue of food deserts boils down to one simple point: people need ready access to fresh, healthy food.  By implementing different types of programs such as community gardens, mobile food deliveries, and educational opportunities, we can fight food deserts from all angles. It’s important to know that we can empower ourselves to take on the responsibility of learning about food deserts and make those important connections to help reduce the impact on our communities. No one should have to face living without healthy food. With raised awareness and coordinated community efforts, we can address and stamp out this epidemic forever.