Food Deserts: A Dangerous Lack of Choice


Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly

With Thanksgiving approaching, people from all over the country will head to grocery stores to prepare for the US holiday. Every family has their own recipes, but just about every take of the tradition requires fruit and vegetables to make stuffing, salads- items that many in New Orleans do not have easy access to.

‘Food desert’ is a term that describes an area where residents cannot readily access affordable and fresh food. The Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are classic examples, profiled in documentaries and exposes, of neighborhoods with residents that are miles away from stores that sell fresh produce. The problem is lessened significantly for those who own cars and the gas money needed to drive to a grocery store outside of their food desert. But in a city where 30% living below the poverty line, according to the Brookings Institute, there are tens of thousands of New Orleanians who are subsequently stuck in their respective food deserts.

A Battle of Semantics

Since First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, that focuses on childhood nutrition, the issue of food scarcity is received increased attention. But with the majority of the Americans live in suburban sprawl settings, where long drives to commercial centers are common, it can be difficult to identify how many Americans are truly suffering in food desert conditions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseer of everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, is the official designator in what is a food desert through the use of census data. An area is ruled a food desert if there are 500 or more individuals or 33 percent of a town’s population that reside more than one mile from a grocery store. (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The USDA’s definition of food deserts is often criticized for its vague wording. Does a small corner store or large gas station constitute as a ‘grocery store?’ Also the role of household income is not addressed. A five-mile trek for routine grocery shopping is a weekly routine for residents of affluent suburbs, but near impossible for those who live in low-income housing on the outskirts of New Orleans.

The other obstacle in establishing access to fresh produce is providing it at an affordable price. A family that lives off of less than $25,000 a year will find little reprieve in a boutique grocery store close to their home. The complexities of poverty also make it hard to calculate what constitutes as affordable food. And similarly to the problem with distance from grocery stores, anything that is difficult to quantify is also difficult to rectify.

The USDA and ‘Let’s Move’ program has dedicated $400 million towards tax incentives for grocery stores that open in food deserts. But one new store does not guarantee that low-income residents in the area have legitimate access to healthy food options. The Upper Ninth Ward is a deemed food desert where most residents shop at the Dollar General on the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenue. But with the high-end St. Roch market opening, known for quality premade foods and farm-to-table cooking, Upper Ninth’s may no longer be deemed a food desert.

Raymond Carter, resident of the St. Roch area, does not share the ill will towards the St. Roch Market that others have, but admits that the new store is not on his radar. “It’s a nice looking building, it’s just better for me to shop other places”.

Food Deserts Mean Poor Health

The inevitable result of living in a food desert is a poor diet. Gas stations and other small storefronts provide sustenance, not a healthy lifestyle especially with children. Children who are denied a well-balanced diet are highly prone to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health- problems that are prominent and often untreated in the black community.

Devonte, who chose to not give his last name, can only go shopping for his family if a neighbor drives him the 4 miles to the grocery store in Chalmette. For daily eating, he usually buys poboy and some ramen packages from the nearby Magnolia Gas Station to cover his lunch and dinner meals respectively. He and his friends all appear to be healthy teenagers but this is not the case for many in the Lower Ninth, and is definitely not for New Orleans’s black community as a whole. A 2012 study conducted by Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that those living in zip codes comprised predominately of African-Americans had a far greater chance of heart disease and early death. Perhaps the most troubling were zip codes encompassing Treme and the Seventh Ward, largely black neighborhoods, that had life expectancies of 54 with a 5 times greater chance to die from heart disease.

Those who are passionate about ‘food justice’, the growing social movement to combat unequal food distribution, are tired of low-income communities waiting for market forces and government assistance to combat food deserts. These activists have instead opted to build off of the progress made in urban farming, particularly in low-income areas. Sankofa Market and Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) are examples of organizations located in food deserts that are attempting to provide fresh produce to neighbors. The long-term plan is to give these neighborhoods control of their own food similarly to a rural farm community.

The goal is admittedly quixotic for Alex Goldman, staff member of OSBG, but he rejects the common perception that organic farming is elitist. “Organic farming is often seen as part of the white, rich and privileged world- and for good reason since there is a long history of those who sell arugula for $15 just because they know that there are those who will buy it if it says ‘organic’. “

OSBG staff will be quick to tell you the importance of selling their produce for a reasonable price- $8 for a bag of arugula being their standard. While the return is not as much as it perhaps could be, OSBG sees the organic food market as filled with ‘price-gouging’ practices that make the product unattainable for low-income buyers. Even worse, high price produce instill the long-term impression that this kind of food is not meant for them- a mindset that food activists besides those in OSBG have tried to combat.

After working on the OSBG farm, Devonte sees organic food as something that he will always prefer to eat. “I think everyone should learn how to grow. If the power goes off or things get bad, we’ll know how to survive.” With more studies showing the corrosive effects of pesticides and processed food, food justice activists are hoping that more resources will be allocated to provide healthy alternative to these communities that have the least choice.


Author: charliemturner

Charlie Turner is a freelance journalist after working in political organizing and photography. After relocating from New York City to New Orleans, he has began to write on issues like racial discrimination, energy policy and other topics prominent in the American South. Being half-Japanese and half-Caucasian with US/Canada dual citizenship, Charlie has also began to pursue international stories as well. He is currently in Myanmar to learn more about a nation undergoing democratization accompanied with globalization.

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