A lot of people have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” But, how many times have you heard the phrase, “What surrounds you, shapes you?” You’ll realize just how true this second statement can be when you begin to understand the role the built environment can play in your everyday diet and lifestyle. For example, if you live in a neighborhood where sidewalks and multi-use trails are ubiquitous, chances are you spend more time outdoors walking or exercising. Take a minute and think about your neighborhood and where you live. Are there sidewalks and bicycle paths available? Is there a transit stop within a reasonable walking distance? Is there a full-service grocery store nearby or are you surrounded by fast-food restaurants? For many people in the United States, accessing healthy food on a weekly basis is a difficult and time-consuming task.
Food deserts are, in simple terms, areas in which a large portion of the population is unable to access healthy food due to distance, lack of transportation, or physical abilities. These types of places are often saturated with unhealthy food options including convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas allows people to find and identify food deserts that may be in their area. You may be surprised at how many food deserts there are across the United States. Now that we know the problem, how do we work towards solving it?
Alternatives to Traditional Grocery Stores
There are many ways to bridge the gap between residents and healthy foods besides traditional grocery stores. This section will highlight two different types of projects/programs that are currently in place to give residents better access to healthy foods including a mobile grocery store and a non-profit supermarket.
Mobile Grocery Store
In cities where land may be limited or where a brick-and-mortar grocery store is not possible, a mobile grocery store may be a possible solution. A mobile grocery store is basically a grocery store on wheels. They typically carry fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other perishable items, to underserved communities in large retrofitted vehicles such as a school or city bus.
One of the first mobile grocery store programs I learned about was Fresh Moves in Chicago, Illinois. Community leaders were able to secure a bus, donated from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and they partnered with Architecture for Humanity to transform the bus into a mobile produce market. Each week Fresh Moves posts its scheduled stops throughout the City so people know when and where to find them. This type of program almost completely removes the transportation barrier many people face when trying to access healthy foods by bringing the food to them. This type of program offers a lot of flexibility since routes and stops can be changed weekly to accommodate additional areas that may be in need of healthy food. There are many other variations of mobile grocery stores across the U.S. including “Farm to Family” in the Washington D.C. area and the R&G Family Grocers mobile store in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This past month in Chester, Pennsylvania, the Nation’s first non-profit supermarket opened in an area that has been a food desert for almost 12 years. The Fare & Square supermarket was opened by Philabundance, the Philadelphia metro area’s largest food bank. It is often difficult to attract traditional full-service grocers to areas such as Chester due to perceived less profits so Philabundance took the needs of their residents into their own hands. Since Fare & Square is a non-profit business, food prices tend to be lower. Additionally, the store accepts SNAP benefits and offers low-income shoppers the opportunity to earn extra store credit. While the exact business model for the non-profit grocery store has not been discussed, it is surely a model to follow to see if other food desert communities could create similar versions.
Good food environments can foster positive relationships between people and food. All people, regardless of their income level, should be able to easily access healthy foods if they so desire. A variety of transportation options, including both motorized and non-motorized, in communities can help make accessing healthy food easier. Getting to healthy foods is often half of the battle. If traditional methods are not working or possible, don’t be afraid to get creative in your healthy food delivery methods!
-- Amanda Douglas, Cities that Work Blog