Discussions about community health, urban gardening and access to healthy lifestyle options have introduced us to a new concept- food deserts. A food desert is a geographical area with mostly low-income residents who have limited access to nutritious, affordable food options. In urban areas this usually means that they have to travel more than 1 mile to a supermarket, while in rural areas the distance is expanded to 10 miles. Local community gardens have cropped up within food desert areas as a way to directly address the issue and provide fresh produce directly to families, but the problem is widespread and systemic. What effects do food deserts have on communities, and what can be done about it?

Let’s take a look at the Food Deserts Locator, a tool provided by the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a partnership between the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, and the Agriculture Department (USDA). The HFFI is a part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, and their goal is to provide funding that will bring affordable, healthy food options to low-income neighborhoods. What does the Food Deserts Locator tell us about New Mexico?

The areas of pink are considered food deserts, according to the HFFI’s definition:

The HFFI working group defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store:

  • To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income;
  • To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The HFFI definition is not the universal definition of a food desert, but it provides an excellent basis to analyze the food deserts across the country and New Mexico. As you can clearly see from this snapshot, New Mexico is covered in food deserts, especially in the middle and western parts of the state.

And just look at the four corners area! The map shows us the overlay of food deserts on Indian Country, a contributor to the high rate of childhood obesity among American Indian and Alaska Native youth. This map represents a lot of families that lack easy access to affordable food. At first glance Albuquerque seems to exist in between the other food deserts as an oasis of nutrition and healthy food options- but we know that’s not true. Let’s take a look at a section of Southeast Albuquerque:

This closer look partially reveals that there are many smaller food deserts within the urban sprawl of Albuquerque. I’ve highlighted on this map the location of the International District Community Garden, located on the corner of Ross and Wellesley and maintained by Project Feed the Hood, an urban gardening and food literacy project of SWOP that aims to improve community health through education and revival of traditional growing methods. I asked one of the Project’s lead gardeners and organizers, Rodrigo Rodriguez, about the impact of the food desert on local residents.

“The area of this garden is predominantly a community of color and a low-income community. These communities are more greatly affected by food deserts because of income issues. They don’t have the same opportunity to access nutritious, sustainable local foods. When you add to the equation that its such a vast food desert, they’re disproportionately affected. Because you have people in the neighborhood with issues around transportation it’s three times as hard to get to grocery stores. Then what they do have doesn’t necessarily provide the best quality food anyway.”

Rodrigo makes an important point- the impact of food deserts and lack of access can be even greater in certain communitites. According to a report by the National Council of La Raza titled The Food Environment and Latino’s Access to Healthy Foods, as part of their 2010 Profiles of Latino Health, Hispanic families simply have less access to healthy food choices. Hispanic families have one-third as many chain supermarkets as non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Larger chain supermarkets are more likely to have a wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, among other healthy food options.

Another key problem for food desert communities is lack of transportation. As of 2003, 13.4% of Hispanic households and 26.6% of Black households had no access to a vehicle, as opposed to the national rate of 8.6% of all households. Urban residents’ shopping options are often limited to the bus routes that are available to them, while 20% of rural residents have to travel 10 or more miles to reach a supermarket. The food desert impact affects a wide array of communities.

Availability of affordable, healthy food options has a direct impact on nutritional outcomes in children and adults. A 2005 study found that “Children who lived in metropolitan areas where fruits and vegetables were relatively expensive gained significantly more weight than children—matched for otherwise-similar characteristics and standard of living—who lived where fruits and vegetables were cheaper.” This finding highlights one of the most frightening realities of food deserts- fruits and vegetables that could be grown right in a neighborhood’s backyard are instead shipped in from other places at prohibitive costs, causing people to choose food options that negatively impact their health. This is one of the inescapable contradictions of the food system in the United States, but it is also where local community gardeners find opporutnity. Project Feed the Hood’s Rodrigo Rodriguez explains:

“We obviously know that one small community garden can’t feed the whole neighborhood or provide enough food that everyone has equal access to but it’s an opportunity and a space for people to start having those conversations. Why don’t we have grocery stores? Why no growers market? Why is the nearest place with fresh food outside a reasonable distance? We know it’s not gonna stamp out hunger by itself but it’s a growing, living space where people can talk and maybe start growing at home and maybe work with other communities, organizations and decision-makers to have more community gardens, more growers markets. Lobby business owners to provide more high-quality produce. It’s a way to engage people in a dynamic way. It starts with things like community gardens, and it moves to seed sharing, seed saving and moves to food exchange. It’s like a pebble in a pond that creates waves.”

Although more supermarkets and fresh produce vendors are needed in food deserts, people can also individually take control of their personal health as well as their community health. Urban gardening projects empower people to control their destiny through local, sustainable agriculture and shared practices and knowledge. While the national discussion to improve our collective health and support underserved communities must continue, the local answer to food deserts may just rest in the soil in your backyard.

Project Feed the Hood’s gardeners will be at the International District Community Garden, located on the corner of Ross and Wellesley in the Southeast Heights of Albuquerque, this Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM.

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