Just Deserts: 6 Ways to Bring Good Food to Poor Neighborhoods How to End Food Deserts and Bring Healthy Food to Poor Neighborhoods

Here's how to bridge the gap between farm and table in low-income communities.

As I noted in last week’s column, the connection between poverty and obesity cannot be denied. Studies show that low-income children are much more likely to be overweight than their wealthier counterparts and that more than one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year are obese, while fewer than 25 percent of those who earn more than $50,000 a year are significantly overweight.

That’s partly because folks living in poor communities face significant hurdles when it comes to accessing healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Not only are these healthful foods often prohibitively expensive, they can be difficult to locate in low-income areas, especially food deserts.

Luckily, many forward-thinking programs are chipping away at income-based barriers to good food. Here are six innovative ideas that aim to expand food access on all fronts—education, availability, and affordability.

Grocery Incubators
More than 20 million people live in food deserts, areas where at least a third of the population lives more than one mile from the nearest grocery store (10 miles in rural areas). Without a supermarket in the vicinity, food desert residents must get their meals from whatever options are around—often fast-food joints and corner stores. Burger Kings and bodegas aren’t exactly hitting the highlights of the food pyramid.

Enter supermarket boosters like the Detroit Grocery Incubator Project. Part of Michigan’s Fair Food Network, the incubator aims to combat food deserts by increasing the number of supermarkets in Detroit neighborhoods. The initiative provides local entrepreneurs with on-the-job training and coursework on how to open and operate a successful grocery store. The incubator project also helps secure investors to allow entrepreneurs to open supermarkets in food deserts. Added bonuses: job creation, business development, and expanded food access in economically depressed Detroit.

Healthy Corner Stores
In the absence of grocery stores and farmers’ markets, bodegas and corner stores serve as the central food source in many low-income communities. Most of these shops are rife with packaged, processed fare like Twinkies, chips, and frozen dinners. Initiatives like the Healthy Corner Stores Network aim to diversify bodegas’ offerings. The network and its more than 600 members support plans to expand corner stores’ stock to include fresh fruits and veggies, lean meats, and whole grains. Bringing nutritious foods to corner stores helps lessen the link between obesity and living in a food desert.

Food Education.
Knowing how to source and prepare healthy meals is half the battle, which is why education is so important. School gardens that provide kids with hands-on nutrition education lay the foundation for a lifetime of good food choices. Take the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California: Students learn how to grow fresh fruits and veggies sustainably in an on-site garden, receive information about nutrition during lunchtime, and are fed free lunches featuring local and organic ingredients. Sure, not every school has the resources to create a program as comprehensive as Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard, but some on-site gardens can both feed and educate students for relatively little money.

The Chefs Move to Schools program, part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity, is another solid plan to boost nutrition education. The program pairs professional chefs with public schools: Chefs volunteer to provide menu suggestions and culinary training, and teach kids about cooking and proper nutrition. Students receive an education and healthier meals.

Farm-to-School Programs
Nearly 20 million low-income kids receive free or reduced-cost lunches through the USDA’s federal school lunch program. Many times, these meals consist of little more than soggy pizza and goopy tacos. Farm-to-school programs aim to make lunches more sustainable—and more appetizing by sourcing ingredients from local farms. Farmers benefit from extra business, and students get a healthy meal while also getting schooled on seasonal, local foods.

Farmers’ Market Coupon Programs
Fresh fruits and vegetables often cost significantly more than processed, packaged foods, so affording these items on a budget is tricky. Farmers’ markets across the country are working to expand access to fresh produce by making them more affordable for folks on fixed incomes. Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program is one of those initiatives. People receiving federal nutrition assistance benefits like food stamps and those provided by the Women, Infants, and Children program can use those benefits at participating farmers’ markets. When they do, their benefits are worth up to twice their original value, an incentive system that defrays the cost of healthy foods like fresh produce.

Urban Farms and Food Pantries
The days of food pantries stocked exclusively with non-perishables are over: Food pantries and homeless shelters across the country are now working with urban farms and farmers’ markets to source donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some food pantries are getting even more creative and starting their own urban gardens to ensure that shelves stay stocked with nutritious goods.

We’re off to a good start. But truly breaking down barriers to food access and improving nutrition among low-income Americans will require a comprehensive approach at the local, state, and federal levels. That means bringing farm-fresh food to America's poorest neighborhoods—but also addressing American income disparity from the ground up.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user karimian

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