For millions of Americans, finding a fresh apple to snack on is not very easy. Many areas have seen the number of grocery stores where fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and meats can be purchased decline, and the number of convenience stores, liquor stores, and fast food chains selling processed foods high in fat and sugar dramatically increase in recent years.
“Food deserts” are geographic areas where access to healthy, affordable food options (particularly fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of full-service grocery stores within a convenient traveling distance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a convenient traveling distance as more than one mile in urban areas, and more than ten miles in rural areas. This is not about access to any food; it is about access to healthy foods, especially among vulnerable populations. The USDA estimates that nearly 23.5 million people live in food deserts, of which 13.5 million are low-income residents. Across the country, low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer supermarkets and 30 percent more convenience stores than middle-income zip codes.
Food access issues affect urban and rural areas alike. Those who do not have access to a car find it virtually impossible to reach stores beyond their immediate neighborhood and must rely on friends, neighbors, and food pantries for meals.
Solutions must go beyond the idea of simply building more grocery stores, as both rural and urban food desert areas have a hard time attracting and keeping commercial grocery retailers. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, one in five grocery stores has gone out of business in the last four years in rural areas. Because of this, many realize that there is not a uniform solution to the food desert issue, and as a result have implemented varied and innovative strategies. Here are five different initiatives working to eliminate food deserts:
1) When Brahm Ahmadi was unable to engage the interest of private investors, he began selling stock directly to the public in order to fund a new grocery store. People’s Community Market will provide a full-service neighborhood food store as well as a health resource center and community hub to the 25,000 West Oakland residents that have limited access to fresh produce.
2) In California, a new public-private partnership loan fund called Fresh Works works with a $200 million dollar investment pool to provide loans and grants to grocers wanting to build or expand in underserved neighborhoods.
3) Community garden initiatives are quickly popping up in both urban and rural areas, providing easy access to inexpensive, fresh produce. The American Community Garden Association (ACGA) provides resources for over 18,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada.
4) After a survey revealed that 94 percent of residents would purchase more fresh produce if it were available at convenience stores, the city of Minneapolis enacted the Minneapolis Health Corner Store initiative, requiring all corner and convenience stores to stock a certain amount of fresh fruit on their shelves.
5) Mobile markets and produce trucks have popped up in many underserved areas. In California, Second Harvest Food Bank has been using a refrigerated truck to distribute fresh produce to those in need since 2006. In Detroit, Peaches & Greens, a mobile produce truck, delivers fruits and vegetables to a high-need community. Garden on the Go, a produce truck initiative from Indiana University, makes 16 weekly stops, sells produce at an affordable price, and accepts EBT (food stamps), making access to healthy fruits and vegetables as convenient as possible.