Imagine, for a second, that the U-District had no grocery stores. Without a place to purchase (relatively) cheap, healthy foods, what would you do? Resort to a Dollar Tree diet?
Without car access or the stamina to carry your several pounds of groceries on a long trek, this problem only gets worse. Such is the reality for some who are living in food deserts across the United States and in King County.
Ever since the term “food desert” was written into law in the 2008 Farm Bill to describe an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income [groups],” there has been unending contention about the subject.
Food deserts aren’t just accidents or random circumstance. They represent roots, histories, and futures of structural inequality — all fundamental issues on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. For one part, progressive and holistic urban planning could help to prevent them in the first place. However, socioeconomic disparity and education about nutrition must be addressed in order to fix the problem.
Without a competitively priced grocery store within walking distance, evidence from a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the population in a region will steadily decline by an average of 10 percent annually. This population decrease will serve to deter the development of any new grocery stores, contributing to a feedback loop of urban decay.
Very often, urban planners seem to construct environments designed primarily for car users. (It is no secret we live in an automobile-driven society.) However, it is a dire mistake to assume the entire population of an area owns a car — especially in urban areas like King County, where anywhere from 5 to 8 percent of the population lacks a car. By failing to take immobile segments of the population into account, urban planners are depriving them of grocery access.
I would not expect my grandmother, for example, to walk even five minutes to purchase groceries, and she cannot drive. So what would she be expected to do in an area without localized access to fresh produce?
The lack of a local source of fresh produce is a serious problem for any community. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified numerous food desert areas in King County ranging from South Seattle to Renton, Burien, and Des Moines. National efforts by the Department of Agriculture, Congress, and even first lady Michelle Obama hope to target and eliminate any areas lacking in access to nutritious food. But such actions will not be as effective as those we can take at a local level.
Our nation’s poor access to nutrition takes on a new air of importance as U.S. rates of diabetes and heart disease appear worse than most other developed countries. A healthy diet (rich in fruits and vegetables) can help to prevent these diseases.
Steps as simple as arranging for green carts, mobile vendors of fresh local produce, to come through areas that lack grocery access could certainly alleviate food deserts. Green carts have already been largely successful in New York City and are being considered in Philadelphia, California, and D.C. Another simple measure would be the expansion of community gardens. Seattle already has many active urban gardening programs, and strategic development of new gardens in areas designated as food deserts could ameliorate their lack of produce access.
Whatever the cause of the food desert dilemma — be it socioeconomic disparity or flawed urban design — there are immediate solutions available at the local level. Every member of a community has an interest in the eradication of food deserts; it is time we took steps to ensure that everyone has access to healthy, inexpensive groceries.
Reach opinion writer Joshua Waugh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @joshawaugh
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