It’s something a lot of Americans take for granted. Healthy and nutritious food easily accessible at a nearby grocery store. But in urban and rural parts of the United States, many Americans live in what’s been coined a food desert.
Simply put, a food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number of residents lack easy access to a grocery store. The USDA estimates that 13.5 million Americans live in a food desert. And you can find these deserts in both urban and rural areas, THOUGH THEY DIFFER.
ConsiderNorth Omaha. Parts of this community inNebraska’s largest city have some of the highest levels of poverty in the U.S, particularly among African Americans. Nebraska State Senator Brenda Council’s district is in northOmaha.
Brenda Council, Nebraska State Senator: “In many urban communities the retail industry will look at the number of rooftops and what the median income is and those will be the determining factors in whether they’ll invest the kind of capitol to be invested in a full service grocery store.”
This is one of those neighborhoods where you won’t find a large grocery store. J-N-D grocery owner Dave Adams has lived his whole life in thisNorth Omahaneighborhood. He’s tried to keep healthy options in his aisles but says spoilage causes him to throw away a lot of the product.
David Adams, J-N-D Grocery: “The neighborhood here, walk in customers from neighborhood, was a grocery store in early 30’s always some type of grocery store here. Over years became more convenient store. Adding meats, produce besides your chips and beer, going throughout the years is tough.”
In 2009, with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, The Douglas County Health Department identified neighborhoods in north Omaha that had the highest combination of high risk health factors, then zeroed in on the neighborhoods where citizens had to travel over 1 mile to find healthy food options. Finally, it found ways to help bring the healthy food to these neighborhoods.
Mary Balluff, Douglas County Health Department: “These grocery stores are using the distribution system they had so if they’re using a wholesaler, they’re continuing to use wholesaler. What we’re trying to do is help them figure out what they have in their store and how they can offer different products. In most cases they can get it from wholesaler, the problem is that there’s been no demand for them so it did not fit with their business model.”
The effort has also been stepped up in grocery store’s marketing efforts. UniversityofNebraskaextension has come in to provide samples of fresh food options offered in these stores to create a demand. 82 percent of Americans located in a food desert live in urban areas. But the problem is just as severe in rural communities.
Around 130 people live in the town ofCody,Nebraska. Tucked in the northern sandhills of the state, residents here have to drive 40 miles to get to the nearest grocery store. Teachers at the high school saw a need for the store and an opportunity to integrate hands-on curriculum in the classroom. So the school applied and was awarded two USDA grants in 2009. One 75,000 dollar grant will house an entrepreneurship incubator within the school and ultimately establish a grocery store. Another 95 thousand dollar grant will fund the actual building which will be made out of straw bales to make it energy efficient.
John Johnson, Cody Village Board President: “The building’s going to sit right here…”
Stacey Adamson, Cody Nebraska Teacher: “We’ve had people say if grocery stores couldn’t work before why would this work now? And the bottom line is we don’t have to support a family. We formed a non-profit and funds will go into that and then the students will decide what to do with those funds, will it be a scholarship? Will it be lights for the football field? What does the school need? So any money that profits above and beyond what it takes to make the business run will be funneled back into the community.”
The grocery store won’t be the first of its kind in town. Cody resident George Johnson runs “George Paul Vinegar”, a winery that is also made from similar straw bale building.
These two communities are seeking solutions to combat the problem. The USDA recently introduced an online FoodDesertlocator. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the locator will help identify communities where intervention can help make healthy affordable food more readily available.
They just decided to come together as individuals and say we’re going to do something about making fresh foods available in our community.
Senator Brenda Council of North Omaha introduced a “FoodDesert” bill in theNebraskalegislature last session. The measure would have authorized 150 thousand dollars each of the next two years to increase access to healthy foods in food deserts. But Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman vetoed the bill, saying he supports the goal, but the bill duplicates other federal programs. Despite having passed by a healthy margin, after the governor vetoed the bill, support dropped off and an override was unsuccessful.
Fritz Nordengren, Des MoinesUniversity: “I think when we look at the subject of food deserts, it’s really quick to think it’s a political problem. Or a big ag, small ag problem. But it’s really not. The solution to food deserts has to include looking at the entire food system. Make sure there’s a place for everyone at the table. That there’s an opportunity for big ag to sit next to the small organic producers to sit next to distributing company, manager of grocery co-op. So they can’t point finger at each other for blame, but they have to work together for solutions.”