Life in a food desert

For millions of people, dinner is whatever is cheapest and most accessible. Most likely “junk food.”

Story by Melissa Pasanen
Photos by Amy Toensing and Justin Merriman

Teenagers blend up banana-strawberry smoothies in East Los Angeles. Senior citizens tap grocery orders into their smart phones in South Carolina. Peruvian potato farmers learn how to cultivate green vegetables in the high Andes. Fresh produce coolers bloom in Pennsylvania corner stores, and healthy recipes are demoed at general stores in rural Vermont.

Diverse as they might seem, these are all examples of community-customized responses to a single public health challenge faced around the globe where there are barriers to obtaining nutritious and affordable food. Commonly called “food deserts,” these geographic designations can exist in urban neighborhoods where corner stores carry plenty of processed foods, liquor and cigarettes but offer few whole ingredients for healthy meals. They can also exist, ironically, in rural agricultural communities, where—even in regions not quite as remote as the Andes—sparse populations cannot support food markets and, often, gas station convenience stores become the default grocery source.

It is easier in most of these places to buy potato chips than sweet potatoes, orange soda than a fresh orange—and the health implications are significant.

1 in 5 Canadians lives in a food desert.

“A step toward better health”

In the United States alone, based on distance from the closest supermarket, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts and more than half of those (13.5 million) are low-income. While risk factors are complex, the USDA submits that food deserts “contribute to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

A 2009 US National Academy of Sciences report summarized: “Solving the food desert problem might not alone improve health or necessarily change what individuals eat. However, understanding where food deserts exist in the United States can provide guidance on where changes can be made to improve the availability of affordable healthy food options … (and) will be a step toward better health for all Americans.”

Research also underlines that addressing food deserts builds more vibrant, healthy communities overall. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Food Trust drew four main conclusions in its 2010 report, “The Grocery Gap: who has access to healthy food and why it matters.”

  • Access to healthy food is a challenge for many Americans—particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color and rural areas.
  • Better access corresponds with healthier eating.
  • Access to healthy food is associated with lower risk for obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases.
  • New and improved healthy food retail in underserved communities creates jobs and helps revitalize low-income neighborhoods.
GLOVER, VERMONT — SEPTEMBER 24, 2015: Kids at the Glover Elementary school work with Green Mountain Farm to School coordinators to prepare a harvest dinner for their school’s open house later that night.

One size does not fit all

Solutions, not surprisingly, are not one-size-fits-all. While it might seem that attracting new grocery stores and supermarkets would be an obvious fix, that is often not economically sustainable or a good fit for the community. Farmers markets, farm stands and community gardens can help but are usually seasonal and not always perceived as accessible or affordable. Improving transportation options to existing nearby stores—or providing free or affordable grocery delivery—can work in some situations.

23.5 million U.S. residents live in a food desert.

Many successful efforts have focused on increasing and promoting a healthier range of food choices in smaller, existing stores where people are already comfortable.

“Behavior change is hard enough,” explains Katherine Sims, who founded a nonprofit that works in some of the poorest rural areas of northern Vermont with challenges around transportation, limited food budgets and lack of food preparation knowledge. “We believe it makes the most sense to work with people where they are already shopping.”

GLOVER, VERMONT — SEPTEMBER 24, 2015: Kids at the Glover Elementary school work with Green Mountain Farm to School coordinators to prepare a harvest dinner for their school’s open house later that night.

“Re-freshing” the local store

Vermont’s Green Mountain Farm Direct, an arm of Sims’ Green Mountain Farm-to-School umbrella organization, works as a regional consolidator and distributor of locally grown whole foods into schools, retail outlets and institutions such as hospitals. “When people know where their food comes from they’re more likely to try it,” Sims points out, also noting that kids are often the most successful in convincing their parents to taste new foods.

The nonprofit’s Lunchbox food truck hits the road each summer to visit remote Vermont towns where it serves up fresh-cooked, federally-supported free meals to children. The truck also offers tastings and education at meal sites and retail grocer partners along the way. In the fall of 2015, GMFTS piloted a new grant-funded program offering extra dollars to those qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) specifically to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local general stores and other small, independent food markets. Those items are always going to be harder for a limited-income shopper to choose.

“Potato chips are cheaper per calorie than a pepper,” Sims acknowledges.

Across the country in inner-city Los Angeles, Michael Prelip, associate dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, observes similar dynamics at play. Public transportation can turn a supermarket trip into a several-hour expedition, he explains, and locally available fresh fruits and vegetables, where stocked, are relatively expensive and not always high quality.

Rather than the term “food deserts,” Prelip uses the term “food swamps” to indicate that unhealthy options dominate. While there is some healthy food in local stores, “it is being diluted by so much other unhealthy food, it isn’t the easy choice,” Prelip notes. “It’s become easy to eat poorly.”

As in Vermont, UCLA’s Corner Store Project works closely with store owners to improve offerings at existing neighborhood markets, but Prelip acknowledges that simply providing more healthy options is not enough.

“If you just make environmental change, you don’t see change,” he says. “There needs to be personal behavior change too.”

The coalition behind the project works closely with corner store owners to help them stock more fresh produce and improve their store environments overall while also engaging teenagers as key partners to develop nutritious recipes and effective marketing messages.

“It’s about everyone working together,” Prelip says. “It’s not just about adding healthier foods. It’s also about building awareness and understanding.”

Dora Walmsley, co-owner of the 52nd Street Market, talks with Wayne Burnam, 10, who lives down the street from the market in Lawrenceville, PA on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015.

New models

Deirdre Kane and Dora Walmsley met while volunteering in the community vegetable gardens in Lawrence-ville, Pennsylvania, a working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Kane grew up there frequenting the corner store, which had been a fixture since the early 20th century until it closed a few years ago. During a series of community planning meetings, it became clear that its closure had left a hole.

“At the top of the list,” recalls Kane, “was a place where people could buy staples year-round, including fresh produce that looked good.”

2.4 million heart disease deaths per year, often caused by eating poorly.

In the spring of 2014, the pair opened their 52nd Street Market in the former corner store with the support of crowd-funding campaigns and a nonprofit lender. Kane continues her day job while Walmsley works part-time for the market and also as outreach coordinator for the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. The 800-square-foot store offers staples like bread, milk and eggs with only a low mark-up, bulk dried goods and coolers of fresh fruits and vegetables. The market hosts a dietician monthly and while it does carry higher-end foods that appeal to some in the transitioning neighborhood, the primary goal remains “to provide healthy food to our neighbors at a reasonable cost,” says Kane.

One measure of success: “There are a couple of sisters in their late 80s a few doors down and we’re their grocery store.”

(From left to right) Kayne Burnam, 6, Tyaire Hawkins, 6, Donovan Moorefield, 8, and Malon Burnam, 5, talk with Deirdre Kane and Dora Walmsley, owners of the 52nd Street Market, at the store in Lawrenceville, PA on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. The kids live close by and are frequent visitors of the market.

In Chester, South Carolina, Gloria Kellerhals, co-chairwoman of the Catawba Farm and Food Coalition, notes that seniors, particularly, struggle to reach grocery stores. Accessing healthy food regularly is a challenge in the area, which has high unemployment and poverty levels. Prompted by the always-long lines at the food pantry, Kellerhals and her coalition have tried a variety of tactics, including mobile and farmers markets to which, she admits, “Nobody showed up.” She’s now focused on ironing out the wrinkles in an online grocery market where customers can shop from the comfort of their own home, using SNAP benefits if needed, and either pick up their groceries at convenient locations or receive deliveries from local senior services volunteers.

Beyond the desert

Several years ago, Stockbox, a fresh foods store squeezed into a 160-foot-square shipping container, opened in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Seattle, Washington. It caught the attention of the national press for its innovative approach to “solving” the food desert problem. Unfortunately, the concept had more success in the media than it did on the ground. Co-founders Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich have used that experience to evolve into a 2,000-square-foot bricks-and-mortar store in a mixed neighborhood with a large hospital as well as subsidized housing. Their goal “to bring fresh staple foods back into urban neighborhoods” has not changed, says Ferrence, but their strategy has.

They learned that they needed more space to be viewed as a one-stop grocery store and that a mix of customers helps keep produce and other perishables like fresh meat moving for the benefit of all. The high-ceilinged, bright store carries everything from sugar-frosted cereals to kale to freshly made grab-and-go salads, catering to all who live and work in the area.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined food security a right.

With the perspective of years working in sustainable community development, Ferrence believes the term “food deserts” can actually do a disservice.

“Low-income communities get a lot of labels and that is just another negative one,” she says. “We need to be building positive spaces around food. It’s not just about access to food. It’s access to an experience and resources that every other community has.”

Peaches for sale along with other fresh fruit at the 52nd Street Market in Lawrenceville, PA.

Food deserts around the world

While the issue of food deserts, defined as lack of nutritious options, has received much attention in the United States, it is also becoming a problem in developing nations where basic access to enough food of any kind had previously been the major challenge. As these countries modernize, positive trends in health are paired with some negatives related to nutrition, explains Alex Bozzette, program manager for the US-based, public health education non-profit Population Media Center. Diets of fruit, vegetables and proteins like beans or fish are being replaced by imported, processed foods high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and saturated fats. Public health experts have dubbed this, “the nutrition transition,” Bozzette says.  “There is too much of the wrong kinds of food in some places. Undernutrition, overnutrition and malnutrition are happening in the same places all at once.”

High in the Peruvian Andes, a different example of nutrition desert exists where there are plenty of potatoes but very little else to eat, according to Simone Heemskerk, co-founder of Por Eso! a nonprofit she cofounded with Jolanda Buets in 2007. In the mountains 3,770 miles above sea level, one child in three is chronically undernourished, Heemskerk explains, in addition to lacking safe drinking water, healthcare, housing and education. The pair is helping community members grow fresh foods for their families by building communal greenhouses, establishing vegetable gardens and offering farming and cooking classes. Weekly lunches cooked with vegetables from the greenhouses feed 500 children, and their work in nine communities has reached 750 families.

Related content: Facing food insecurity, one Vermont family lives off the land.

This story originally appeared in the December, 2015 issue of Kiwanis Magazine.


Leave a Reply

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑