Published by: Kiran Sreenivas on 9/13/2011 12:14:56 PM
“You are what you eat”. I am certain we have all heard that phrase countless times. But for many the more accurate phrase may be, “You are what you can get to eat”. For some the task of getting to a grocery store to buy their Cheerios, bananas, and low-fat milk may be as simple as a five minute drive, but for others it may be an hour long odyssey involving public transportation in the dead of a harsh Chicago winter. Can we blame those who choose to buy a couple of burgers at the McDonald’s around the corner rather than make a burdensome trip to their nearest grocery store? Fortunately, city governments and community members, like NAPH hospitals, are working to lessen the burden of getting healthy food.
A food desert is the term commonly used to describe an area with limited or no access to affordable nutritious foods necessary for a healthy diet. Defining the specifics of what constitutes a food desert is as difficult as defining “quality” in health care. Does a 7-Eleven that sells apples count as accessible, affordable, and nutritious? If you have no personal vehicle, does a grocery store have to be less than a mile from where you live to be deemed accessible? We all know you have to go to the big grocery chains to get the best deals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a free online food desert locator for the entire U.S. They use census data regarding poverty and distance from a supermarket or large grocery store to define food deserts.
Understandably there is a lot of natural variation within the United States regarding transportation and living costs, so it might be best to look at each community by itself. The Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group did a report on food deserts in Chicago, Illinois in 2006 with periodic updates since. They incorporated distance to fast food restaurants in defining food desserts. Their results showed areas with out-of-balance food environments had higher rates of residents dying prematurely from diabetes.
The city of Chicago has since been active in turning their food deserts into food oases. This past summer Iron Street Urban Farm opened on Chicago’s south side. More farms are coming. In July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced new urban farming ordinances that expanded the size limit on community gardens to 25,000 square feet and relaxed fencing and parking requirements on large commercial urban farms. The policy is seen as a win-win because it will increase the supply of nutritious food and create jobs. The ordinances were passed earlier this month by the city council.
The latest update by Mari Gallagher Research in June 2011 for Chicago shows a 39% reduction in people living in a food desert over the last five years. Disparities do remain. Of the Chicagoans still living in a food desert, 70% are African American.
A key part to eliminating food deserts in addition to increasing supply of nutritious fruits and vegetables is providing convenient access. UAB Hospital, a new NAPH member, is located in one of Birmingham, Alabama’s downtown food deserts. To improve access, A New Leaf Farm Stand operates within the hospital every weekday to sell an assortment of fruits and vegetables ranging from squash to cantaloupes. The hospital also recently debuted a farmer’s market every Friday so local growers can sell their produce. These fresh ingredients also find a way into some special dishes in the cafeteria. Both the UAB Hospital staff and patients appreciate the convenience of the stand and market.
With the proper policies in place and the right initiatives, your local food desert can hopefully soon become an oasis.