It’s time to build oases in U.S. food deserts

Articles
May 27, 2009

It’s time to build oases in U.S. food deserts

One of the shames of our modern supermarkets is their relative abandonment of low-income neighborhoods. As a result, people at economic disadvantage are also at a nutritional disadvantage, which in turn makes it harder for children in these areas to concentrate in school, harder for adults to teach healthful eating habits at home, and hard even for motivated shoppers to access fruits, vegetables and other food powerhouses. Without the right tax or development incentives to attract well-rounded food stores to these neighborhoods, there’s risk of perpetuation and higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. New York City is one municipality trying to mediate the problem with the Health Bodegas Initiative, run by the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. It encourages the purchase of low-fat milk, fruits and vegetables through bilingual posters, educational postcards, and displays in the bodegas and small corner stores that service these neighborhoods (As slim as their assortments might still be about two years after inception, the availability of these foods is a step in the right direction.) When the milk program launched in January 2006, just one of three bodegas in central Brooklyn sold reduced-fat milk. And when the produce program began in December of that year, only one in four bodegas in East Harlem sold apples, oranges, and bananas, and leafy green vegetables were available in only four percent of East Harlem bodegas and two percent of Central Harlem stores, said NYCDHMH.

One of the shames of our modern supermarkets is their relative abandonment of low-income neighborhoods.

As a result, people at economic disadvantage are also at a nutritional disadvantage, which in turn makes it harder for children in these areas to concentrate in school, harder for adults to teach healthful eating habits at home, and hard even for motivated shoppers to access fruits, vegetables and other food powerhouses.

Without the right tax or development incentives to attract well-rounded food stores to these neighborhoods, there’s risk of perpetuation and higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

New York City is one municipality trying to mediate the problem with the Health Bodegas Initiative, run by the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. It encourages the purchase of low-fat milk, fruits and vegetables through bilingual posters, educational postcards, and displays in the bodegas and small corner stores that service these neighborhoods (As slim as their assortments might still be about two years after inception, the availability of these foods is a step in the right direction.)

When the milk program launched in January 2006, just one of three bodegas in central Brooklyn sold reduced-fat milk. And when the produce program began in December of that year, only one in four bodegas in East Harlem sold apples, oranges, and bananas, and leafy green vegetables were available in only four percent of East Harlem bodegas and two percent of Central Harlem stores, said NYCDHMH.

In east and central Harlem, about two out of three food stores are bodegas, and healthy food choices are often unavailable, the agency reported.

To help remedy this problem in some parts of the city, citizens have begun to cultivate unused or under-used land. In the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, a non-profit group Added Value converted an abandoned ball field into a community farm, reported National Public Radio’s Living on Earth. Workers sell their crops at a local farmer’s market that has become a center of nutrients and a gathering place.

In Detroit, Hantz Farms, LLC proposes to convert barren blocks into inner-city agricultural engines that help feed, employ and regenerate the town. (See SG B2B, April 6, 2009)  Phase one could involve more than 70 acres of underutilized vacant lands and abandoned properties on the city’s lower east side to grow natural, local, fresh and safe fruits and vegetables to meet Michigan’s increasing demand for locally grown produce, the company said.  Both Michigan State University (experts in agricultural and soil sciences) and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (a leader in community-based food systems) are behind it.

But the problem is pervasive nationwide, and is on a greater scale than neighborhood projects could collectively offset. As supermarkets look for new avenues of growth, perhaps they could retrain their eye on urban centers. If a combination of reasonable rents, tax abatement and hiring incentives help create a viable economic model, stores that come into low-income neighborhoods could draw huge traffic from dense populations. And with the right technologies, payment systems and security controls in place, retailers could reasonably assure the safety of their customers and their assets—and know that they’re setting the stage for a next-healthful generation.