Urban Food Deserts: Problems and (Partial) Solutions

May 1, 2008 at 8:41 pm 4 comments

From the beginning of Rice, Beans & Mixed Greens, I’ve been bothered by one overriding advantage available to me – I have a car. Having access to reliable transportation and the funding to keep it fueled up is a huge resource that isn’t available to many people. In particular people that live in inner cities.

As one commenter, Steve, rightly pointed out:

If a person in the category of working poor only had enough money for $30 of food in a month, and the rest is spoken for regarding such things as gas to get to work, utilities, rent/mortgage, etc. Wouldn’t all the running around you do to find ways to get extra natural foods or extra cheap foods, also use a significant amount of gasoline more than would be expected of a person living on very meager funds?

Steve is absolutely correct. I have shopped at 4 different stores this month. That is about 3 more than I would ordinarily shop at. In order to make my $30 stretch as far as possible, I have learned where to find rice, bread, oats, and more at the best price. More importantly, I have been able to get to those spots. I’ve also visited many people for barters and done some searching for forages items.

Locations of Grocery Stores in Grand Rapids Unfortunately, many inner cities in the U.S. and other parts of the world lack real grocery stores. By “real” grocery store I mean a shop that sells fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products. These areas are known as “food deserts” and they are a growing problem as locally owned grocery stores continue to be pushed out of business by large chains.

Grand Rapids is no exception to this trend. As you can see from this map (prepared by the Community Research Institute, where I happen to work), there are many places in the inner city of GR that don’t have a full-sized grocery store.* The result is that neighborhood residents often do most of their shopping at convenience and liquor stores, where they pay a premium price for processed food.

Each circle on the map represents a store of some type. The larger the circle is, the higher priced the store. As you can see, most of the small circles (the most affordable stores) are located far outside of the core urban area. Several of them are not accessible by bus. Some would only be accessible to most inner city residents by changing busses 2 or 3 times, which could take hours. Instead of enduring this, many residents choose to shop at the corner store and frequent fast food restaurants for cheap calories.

How Do We Solve This Problem?

If we start with the assumption that all people need to have access to fresh foods, it’s clear that food deserts are a huge issue. They contribute to the combination of malnutrition and obesity that is a national public health issue. Fortunately, there are many strategies that cities and community members are taking to make fresh food accessible in inner cities. Here are a few:

  • Farmers Markets. The city of Grand Rapids and many neighborhood associations sponsor farmers markets throughout the city. This is great, except that the growing season is less than year-round in the Upper Midwest. Most the farmers markets are only open for 4 or 5 months and others that are available longer than that feature lots of non-food vendors. In addition, as far as I know, on the Southeast Side market accepts bridge cards (food stamps), making them less accessible for very low-income residents.
  • Community Gardens. Again these are helpful resources, but far from a comprehensive solution in a northern community. Aside from the short growing season, there seem to be few resources to teach people HOW to garden. If anyone has information about this, please share in the comments.
  • Food Co-ops. I don’t know of a member-owned grocery co-operative in Grand Rapids, but there are a few large cities that have had success with these. Detroit’s Cass Corridor Food Co-op has been in existence since 1972. They carry a wide variety of organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables,  meat, dairy and specialty foods. In general, co-ops are less expensive sources of food because all profits stay within the membership. They also often have opportunities for members to work in the store in exchange for a discount on purchases.
  • Community Supported Agriculture. A CSA is a farm that sells “shares” of its crops to a certain number of families or individuals. In exchange for a fee, the members of the CSA get their share of whatever the farm produces. Many CSAs provide large varieties of organic of low-chemical produce for reasonable fees. In addition, some offer home or central city delivery. In Grand Rapids, Trillium Haven Farm’s CSA delivers produce to the Fulton Street Farmer’s market. They also offer a reduced fee in exchange for work for low-income families. Of course produce deliveries are limited to the growing season.

All of these options provide at least some level of access to fresh food in the inner city. However, even when they are all combined, they simply don’t have the capacity to solve the issue of food deserts. In the end, communities have to find ways to attract grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. Until grocery stores are no longer the major supplier of food in our country (and I can’t forsee that happening in my life time), they are the most comprehensive solution to food deserts.

*If you would like a copy of the full map, send me an email at ricebeansmixedgreens (at) yahoo (dot) com and I’ll send it to you.


Entry filed under: Big Issues, Local Food.

How to Cook Wild Food Week 3 Update

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Emily  |  May 2, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    How about…building actual grocery stores in the middle of food deserts? What would it take…tax incentives? Investors? Storefront space? Why has the urban grocery store not been exploited as a business? I can’t imagine that a “real” grocery store within walking distance and/or on a bus line from major parts of a food desert would not thrive – unless something like zoning or taxes or property prices were getting in the way.

  • 2. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  May 2, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    @Emily – I agree that the absence of stores doesn’t seem rational. I think part of the problem is the perception by major corporations that residents of “mixed” neighborhoods don’t have money to spend. However, Base of the Pyramid investing in truly impoverished countries like Bangladesh has shown that even the poorest people NEED things, and will spend the money they do have to get them.

  • 3. bigbinder  |  May 9, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    You might find this post on Cheap Healthy Good interesting; it’s about a vegetarinan diet, education outreach, and the food desert. It sounds right up your alley:


  • 4. sandrar  |  September 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


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