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Posts Tagged ‘food deserts’

NPR reports on an innovative project in Baltimore to bring groceries to neighborhoods without access to a full-service store with fresh fruits and vegetables (called “food deserts”). Residents order online and pick up at the library:

Under a new city program, patrons can order groceries online and pay with cash, credit or food stamps. The orders are filled by Santoni’s supermarket, a longtime Baltimore grocer. They deliver the items to the library the next day.

[…] health department staffers spend a few hours each week helping patrons order their groceries online. One is Jackie Coles, a single mother of three who works as a custodian.

Like most in this neighborhood, she doesn’t own a car.

“The market around here has been closed for a little over a year,” Coles says. “And you have to go so far to get to another market. You know, you have to pay somebody to take you. Or it’s a long walk.”

But Coles is now a regular at the library. She gets books, plus easy access to healthier food options.

“Fruit is fresh. The vegetables are fresh. I get the butchered meat and all. It’s really good,” she says.

I don’t want to claim any credit whatsoever for this initiative, but I will say that a couple years ago I thought of using Tulsa’s local grocers (who have online ordering and delivery) to get groceries to our food deserts. We studied the feasibility and complications – the online systems don’t accept food stamps or WIC, they may not deliver to North Tulsa, people might not have access to the internet, perhaps deliveries could be made to CAP early childhood centers, etc. So I’m really happy to see that Baltimore figured it out using their library system – why didn’t Diama think of that?

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Ezra Klein, a health policy blogger for the Washington Post, links to a new report from the Food and Drug Administration examining the problem of food deserts – places that lack access to full-service grocery stores and the fresh produce they sell. This isn’t really a food equity blog, but since I recently posted on the topic this seems like a relevant follow up.

Jane Black, another Wapo reporter, read the report and notes that “there’s no significant evidence that increased access to fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains actually reduces Body Mass Index (BMI).” Klein adds that “only 2.2 percent of Americans live a mile or more from a supermarket and don’t have access to a car.”

So what’s the problem with these so-called food deserts? Too much food.

The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores. As the USDA puts it, “Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.” The concentration of the obesity crisis in high-poverty areas thus brings us back to a pretty well-accepted hypothesis: The problem is with low-income areas where the cheap food is the bad food.

If its the abundance of junk foods rather than the scarcity of fresh foods that is the real culprit here, the policy implications are much different. Subsidizing grocery stores or “green carts” or farmer’s markets isn’t the solution. Getting people to buy the good stuff is, such as policies that provide bonus Food Stamps dollars for fresh produce.

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The New York Times reports on that city’s efforts to bring fresh produce to so-called “food desert” neighborhoods. The city launched an initiative called Green Carts, which created licenses for 1,000 new food vendors (carts) provided that they sell only fresh fruits and vegetables and that they locate in the designated food deserts, such as a Fordham-area neighborhood in the Bronx.

The city has approved 1,000 new mobile food carts for neighborhoods in the five boroughs that have long been isolated from traditional supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers’ markets offering fresh produce at reasonable prices.

“There is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among those who are poor,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services.

So far, 200 Green Carts, as they are officially called, are now on the streets. “Already, people are telling us they’re glad we’re here,” said Michael Bracho, the 42-year-old proprietor of the Decatur Avenue cart, a downsized former Office Depot manager who describes his new occupation as “lucrative if you do it right.”

Some of the vendors who hit the streets last year complained about low-traffic locations, and it will take a while to determine whether there is enough demand to keep all the vendors in business in neighborhoods where processed foods are dominant. And some local merchants could see the carts as competition.

The carts do not accept food stamps, though a government-financed pilot program will soon provide $1,000 all-weather wireless terminals so 15 vendors can accept food-stamp debit cards.

The cart permits restrict operators to designated impoverished neighborhoods in the five boroughs and limit sales to raw fruits and vegetables.

Many distressed urban areas lack a full-service grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables. Grocery retailers usually explain that the overhead as well as loss rate (from theft) are unsustainable for the area – they can’t make a profit. Convenience stores that do operate in these neighborhoods say they can only carry minimal produce because it will go bad before it’s bought.

New York’s cart program works for a few reasons. (more…)

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