Food deserts: is a co-op model the solution?

24 Oct 2013 10.00 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

“Food Desert”. It’s a strange term right? And one that’s becoming increasingly common place in describing the disparities in access to fresh and healthy food in the developed world.


Imagine a desert. I’m about 90 per cent certain that in your mind’s eye you’re visualising somewhere in the Middle East or Africa, somewhere that’s dry and sandy and somewhere that has an almost-absence of plant and animal life. In short, a tough place to survive.


Now imagine a low-income neighbourhood in your city. Somewhere that’s not well serviced by public transport, somewhere most people can’t afford to own a car, somewhere that you’d struggle to find fresh produce – where “grocery store” is synonymous with “gas station” or 24-hour “kwik-e-mart”. 


This is a food desert.


The metaphor is a useful one albeit hard to imagine, especially in the era of big cities, motorised transport, slick supply chains and monolithic grocery store brands. How can it be that some of us have access to an overabundance of food choices while others have to haul shopping bags over two bus routes to eat fresh?


The reason is simple: profit. In the commercially driven era that we live in, it’s just not economical for large supermarket chains to operate storefronts in poor areas. When consumers have less disposable income, this restricts the amount of money spent on food and makes supermarket execs sweat over whether the potential business they’d pull from a new store in a disadvantaged neighbourhood will justify the outlay on construction, rent, employees and overheads. Which is why you find clusters of grocery stores in more affluent areas and a virtual absence in inner and outer-city ghettos.


In the United States, the USDA uses 3 criteria to determine the location of a food desert:


•“Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area.

•Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability.

•Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.”


If you want to get technical, this means that if you live in a “low income community” your area will qualify as a food desert if at least 500 people or 33% of the census tract’s population live more than a mile from a grocery store (or more than 10 miles if you live in a rural area).


Exactly how many food deserts are out there? Well, it’s hard to say – but if we use the geographical definition offered by the USDA the problem is widespread. According to a 2009 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 23.5 million people live in areas without ready access to healthy, fresh produce. Considering the total US population is approximately 314 million, this means 7.5% of all US citizens lack access to basic nutrition. If you’re interested in a visual representation, check out Nathan Yau of Flowing Data’s map of the food deserts of the United States. The frequency and spread of food deserts across the country shows that this truly is a national problem. 


Robin Emmons, a 45 year-old food activist from Charlotte, North Carolina who founded the non-profit Sow Much Good, has been campaigning against the myriad of health problems associated with food deserts. “If you don’t live in an affluent part of the city,” says Emmons in an interview with CNN, “your easiest options are the dollar menu or the convenience store attached to a gas station." 


Obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes are illnesses that are overrepresented in areas that are home to food deserts. The Food Empowerment Project notes that type-2 diabetes escalation rates amongst Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos are higher than the white population, while African-Americans are more likely to suffer from heart disease than whites. It’s no surprise then that these minority groups are statistically more likely to live in areas deemed to be food deserts.


Politically, they’re a hot topic too. First Lady, Michelle Obama, has food deserts in her sights. As part of her Let’s Move! program, she has charged the Healthy Food Financing Initiative with providing funding for fresh food retailers to open shop in low and moderate income areas. After successes in Philadelphia and New Orleans, the program is seen as a real method of enticing not only supermarket chains, but also independent grocers to establish storefronts in needy areas. With the program cited as helping to lower obesity rates in Philadelphia school children over the last 5 years, it has runs on the board.


Non-profit initiatives like Sow Much Good have also helped place the access to nutrition problem on the national map. These initiatives based on a co-op model are increasingly seen as a cheap community-based solution to food scarcity in urban areas. In South Bend, Indiana the Monroe Park Grocery Co-op is one of many small-scale urban farms aiming to alleviate poor health by offering cheap produce for sale as well as community education. 


“The Monroe Park Food Cooperative was formed to address the need for affordable grocery staples and fresh produce within the Monroe Park neighborhood. By utilizing a cooperative economic model to address the challenges of a food desert, Monroe Park neighbors hope to strengthen the social fabric of the community by stimulating improved physical health and social cohesion.”


Although still a fledgling operation – it was established in 2011 – the Monroe Park venture can look to initiatives in other cities for pedigree. Some notable examples are Growing Power and the Rainbow Farming Cooperative in Milwaulkee as well as Grown in Detroit and the Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia. These organisations trade on people power and use that to build tighter community networks and subsidise prices charged for fresh food. 


“So often, prices are the reason that people with a low-income cannot afford to eat healthily,” says Racquel Falk of the Monroe Park Grocery Co-op. “By working together, we hope to change that. In order to shop at the Co-op, one needs to be a member. Those who can pay give anywhere from $10 a semester to $100 a year in membership dues.”


The recent proliferation of urban farming organisations seems to suggest that the case is growing for using a co-op model to alleviate the food access crisis. By working together perhaps we can water these urban food deserts and create fresh, fertile garden beds to support our local communities.


food desert  
heart disease  

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