Food insecurity is more often in the news since Covid-19 is making it worse. While problems can be easy to identify, what’s difficult is finding effective solutions. There are a few solutions to food deserts and food apartheid that are worth discussing, but first, let’s talk more about the problem.
What are food deserts?
In case you didn’t read my previous story, Food Deserts Were a Problem Before and Now They’re Getting Worse, an area is considered a food desert when a sizable portion (at least 500 people or 33 percent ) of the population living in a low-income census tract is about 1 mile (1.6 km) away from a large supermarket in urban areas, or 10 miles (16 km) away from a large supermarket in rural areas. Food deserts are widespread across the United States. The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas map shows locations that are low-income and have low access to supermarkets around the country.
Many low-income people rely on public transportation, biking, or walking to get to the market. And while that’s not the worst fate, it is cumbersome to have to carry bags of groceries back home using these modes of transportation.
Now that we have an idea of the problem, how can we resolve this? Here are several possible solutions, some of which have been implemented successfully, to mitigate food insecurity.
Food Desert Solutions
1. Establish bus stop farmers markets
Farmers markets are nothing new, but a bus stop farmers market puts a new spin on where they are usually located. Bus stops, train stations, and other public transportation hubs are being used as the location for small pop-up style farmers markets in impoverished areas. The idea is to give people who work the opportunity to pick up farm-fresh groceries while on their commute home.
Prices are usually discounted in many locations and food stamps are accepted. Bus stop farmers markets can be found in Dayton, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; and Atlanta, Georgia. The Tampa Bay market was so successful a second location was opened.
2. Support community gardens
Another solution to resolve food deserts was popularized by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama introduced the idea of urban agriculture during her First Lady initiative “Let’s Move!” She even led this effort by example, creating the White House Kitchen Garden in the Rose Garden. This initiative aimed to lower childhood obesity by providing healthier food options in food deserts.
Community gardens have been proven to be a way to combat food insecurity in areas that have low access to markets and are low-income areas. One study conducted in Edmonton, Canada showed that community gardens had some promise as a way to help alleviate healthy food inaccessibility for inner-suburban neighborhoods.
However, this study and another done by analyzing the spatial distribution of community gardens in Phoenix, Arizona showed that community gardens still tend to be located in areas that already have adequate access to healthy food choices.
This issue is resolved when gardens are intentionally placed in or near food deserts. Many cities have implemented the use of community gardens in food deserts to bring healthy options to the poor. Community gardens have been successfully implemented in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, Maryland.
One drawback of this solution is that it needs a dedicated community, community leader, gardening knowledge, and help from the city and local organizations to ensure the success of the garden. Informing the local residents about healthy recipes, and reiterating the benefits of a healthier diet is also important when implementing the food garden.
If people don’t know that their community has a garden or how these gardens benefit them, they will be less likely to use it, let alone participate in the gardening. These obstacles can be addressed by generating enough interest within the community and ensuring the garden’s organization and maintenance by someone in the community or local organizations.
If you’re interested in starting a community garden, here’s an article that discusses some of the steps to do just that:
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3. Improve public transportation options
Access to healthy food is a problem for some people living in food deserts because of the area’s lack of transportation options. Urban sprawl leads to areas that are on the outskirts of the city, which tend to lack proper public transportation options and access to supermarkets. Likewise in rural areas, inadequate public transportation connectivity is a hindrance to the residents who do not own a vehicle.
One way this is being remedied is through the use of ridesharing. Lyft worked with grocery providers and nonprofits to create a Grocery Access Program to help residents of food deserts get discounted rides to participating local grocery stores and farmers markets. The program was first tested out in Washington, DC for six months in 2019. After a successful test run, Lyft is now expanding the program across the United States and Canada.
If you’d like to see if this program is available where you live or you’d like to get involved with it, you can find more information here.
While this is not enough to resolve the overall problem of the lack of transportation options, this is a great solution to help those living in a food desert get healthier groceries.
4. Implement dollar store restrictions
Several cities have decided to limit the number of dollar stores opening in their poor neighborhoods, especially if those areas are food deserts. According to the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, Birmingham, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Cleveland, all have started initiatives to slow the spread of dollar stores, especially in food deserts. Birmingham is extending the farmers market season and lessening restrictions on mobile grocers to help provide healthier food options.
Dollar stores seem harmless, but many of them are exacerbating the food desert problem. These stores target impoverished areas where people have limited transportation options so that the residents will choose to shop there out of convenience. Dollar stores don’t usually provide healthy fresh food options. As more dollar stores open in a food desert, they make the problem worse by displacing actual grocery stores. Grocery stores run on thin profit margins and dollar stores are directly competing with their most profitable products like paper goods and dry products.
Restricting dollar stores alone doesn’t help to provide healthier food options to food deserts, but it does help to prevent food deserts from increasing. This solution needs to work in conjunction with the addition of supermarkets and other healthy food purchasing options in these areas.
Just increasing access to healthy foods is not enough in some cases. When people are used to eating unhealthily, they are more likely to continue eating this way. Which is why many farmers market and other healthy food initiatives include healthy cooking tips.
The cost of healthy food should be considered as well. According to the study published on the National Institutes of Health’s website, the price per serving of healthy food can be almost twice as costly as an unhealthy serving. However, farmers markets have been found to be less expensive than grocery stores, so implementing grocery store alternatives may be the best option.
5. Consider food co-ops, nonprofits, and government-run supermarkets
If privately owned supermarkets won’t stay open in a food desert, then a co-op or nonprofit supermarket is the next best option. Next City organized and created a database of proposed supermarkets in food deserts since 2000 and analyzed where the plans are today. They found 71 qualifying supermarket plans. Of the 71, “21 were driven by government, 18 by community leaders, 12 by nonprofits and eight by commercial interests. Another dozen were driven by a combination of government initiative with community involvement,” according to NextCity.
When comparing the different types of supermarkets, all of the co-ops and nonprofit supermarkets remain open. Two were canceled and six are currently in progress. In comparison, about half of the commercial supermarkets and one-third of the government markets either closed or didn’t even start construction. The five joint government-community supermarket projects also failed or were canceled.
Government-run supermarkets can work, and in fact, one is very successful in Baldwin, Florida, where a municipality-owned grocer called Baldwin Market, hires staff that’s on the municipal payroll.
We’re not trying to make a profit. We’re trying to cover our expenses, and keep the store running. Any money that’s made after that will go into the town in some way.”
— Mayor Sean Lynch
This shows how community involvement and engagement are indispensable to the success of grocery stores in food deserts. Because the residents of food desert neighborhoods are aware that their towns can easily be gentrified if certain companies start building stores in their area, many are apprehensive about the idea of these companies being a part of their town.
Co-ops and government-run markets are more beneficial to impoverished neighborhoods than privately-owned supermarkets because they often adopt local hiring practices, pay a higher wage, and help support local and minority-owned farms. One-third of the cost of starting up a co-op comes from member loans, meaning that the community is financially invested in the co-op just like they are when a store is government-run.
If you are interested in starting a food co-op, here’s a guide detailing the process.
If you are interested in finding a food co-op or food hub in the US, check out the USDA for a directory and more information.
These are just a few of the ideas that have been implemented to alleviate food deserts and food apartheid. There were other solutions that I would have liked to discuss such as converting retired public buses into a mobile farmers market or grocery delivery services, but you get the point. We know the problem, and together we have to creativity and ingenuity to solve it. Let’s get to work.