Posts filed under ‘Big Issues’

Urban Food Deserts: Problems and (Partial) Solutions

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.


May 1, 2008 at 8:41 pm 4 comments

The Global Food Crisis & You

basmati_rice  I decided that I was going to do the $30 for 30 days project months ago, so it’s an incredible coincidence to me that just as I began the new became dominated by the global food crisis. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, a terrible confluence of drought, increased global demand for meat, rising biofuel production, rapidly rising fuel prices, and political instability have led to huge increases in the cost of food worldwide. As an example, in the last year, the wholesale price of rice has more than doubled globally.

This is a serious problem on a number of levels. For one, more people than ever throughout the globe – especially in developing countries – are at risk of starvation. For the 1,000,000,000 people on this planet living on $1 per day or less (now you know where that food budget comes from), a small cup of rice can now cost their entire income. Aid organizations are struggling to buy enough food with their limited budgets and have had to cut back on food aid in many places. These shortages particularly affect children not only in the present, but for the long term. People who have suffered from malnutrition as children have lifelong gaps in health and mental development*. In short, a food crisis now becomes a human capital crisis in 20 years.

At the risk of being even more dour I won’t talk about food riots and political instability stemming from hunger and its resulting anger.

Ok, enough about these global problems. This project, at its heart, is about the small things that we can do to make a difference in this world. Like many global problems, one individual’s actions CAN make an impact on the global food crisis. Here are a few small actions you can take to decrease your impact on the global food system.

What You Can Do

  1. Eat fewer cows. It takes about 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. If that grain was fed directly to humans, there would be no food shortage. I know it’s not practical for most people to give up meat entirely, so I suggest having several meatless meals per week. Breakfast is an easy place to start. If that is still too difficult, shop around for grass fed beef, which is available in many markets throughout West Michigan. As a bonus, cattle production is responsible for 18% of global Carbon Dioxide emission. By cutting down on beef, you could reduce your carbon footprint as much as if you switched to a hybrid car.
  2. Eat more local foods. On average, each item on an American’s dinner plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. In West Michigan we have access to a huge variety of fruits, veggies, dairy and meat all grown within 100 miles or less. This is not the best time of year to shop for most of the produce from this region, but it is a great time to start researching sources. Here is a list of farmers’ markets in the area. The Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council publishes a Local Food Guide that I’ve found very helpful. For even more information, check Local Harvest. Also, feel free to list your local food sources in the comments section.
  3. Grow your own. My post on home and community gardening shares lots of tips for starting to produce some of your own food. Unless you have a LOT of land, you probably aren’t going to grow grain, but you can definitely supplement your diet and incorporate the most local food source of all into your dinner plans.

I know this post is a little more abstract than rest of this project, but I think this is a great example of how local actions really can have a global impact.

*Referenced here:

Photo by Cris DeRaud.

April 23, 2008 at 6:35 pm 9 comments


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