Life in the Fast Food Lane: Urban Food Deserts

December 16, 2009 by

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Kang Can, Fast Food III, 2007, Oil on Canvas, courtesy Van Cleve Fine Art

For those living in urban environments, the quest for healthy food can seem like a walk through the desert—literally.  A “food desert” is an area in which the community has access only to unhealthy food sold at convenience stores, bodegas or fast food restaurants. Healthy food is difficult to obtain due to the distance from a grocery store or the lack of nutritious options available in local stores, a problem often found in low-income urban communities.

Experts at both the Brooklyn District and Harlem District Public Health Offices agree that food deserts are linked to health problems including obesity and diabetes, further emphasizing the need to shift from fast food to healthy food. Communities across the country are taking action:

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NYC’s Healthy Bodegas Physical Activity and Nutrition Program encourages residents to promote access to fresh foods.

New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative promotes fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a switch to 1% milk.  They work closely with bodegas in Brooklyn and the Bronx to change the product offerings to more nutritious options. Living on Earth featured the Healthy Bodegas Initiative and the Cemalyn Grocery in Brooklyn, a participant in the program.

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Another initiative in New York is the NYC Green Carts program. 1000 permits are available for the program, in which local vendors must agree to sell only fresh fruits and vegetables. The New York Pulse profiled vendor Emanuel Hoque, a Bangladeshi immigrant who sells fruits and vegetables in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood where 1 in 4 adults are obese, according to the Brooklyn District Public Health Office.

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The Boston Food Project engages young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture.

Huffington Post blogger, Joel Berg, proposes a “Good Food, Good Jobs” federal initiative that would take a comprehensive approach: increasing funding for food systems projects, combining job training for food-service jobs with food rescue initiatives, facilitating the growth of supermarkets that sell nutritious food, and harnessing unemployed youth to grow and distribute healthy food.

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In Detroit, the Fair Food Network launched a program called “Mo’Bucks,” which offers Bridge Card coupons of up to $10 for the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables to users of the state-funded food aid program.

According to Chicago Magazine, supermarkets and local groceries that provide fresh food migrate out of high-crime neighborhoods due to a slim profit margin and higher insurance costs. The Fresh Food Financing Initiative grants loans to supermarkets or grocery stores built in Pennsylvania’s underserved communities. The program originated from a 2004 policy report by The Food Trust and was signed into law by the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 2006. According The Food Trust, “the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has committed more that $57.9 million in funding for 74 supermarket projects in 27 Pennsylvania counties, creating or preserving almost 5,000 jobs.”

Other urban communities host farm stands, like the one run by the non-profit Growing Home in Chicago, with the hope that fresh fruits and vegetables will provide some relief in the middle of a food desert.  On Chicago’s South Side, Planting Dreams, run by the non-profit God’s Gang, provides training and food supply to local youth.

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This post contributed by guest blogger Sarah Ullman, a senior at Tufts University.  It is my pleasure to introduce Sarah, an English major and Tisch Scholar of Citizenship and Public Service. Her work has primarily focused around theater, politics and environmental sustainability.
sarah.ullman@tufts.edu


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