I’ve heard this term “food desert” thrown around in the media, referring to lack of access to healthy food. What is it exactly and how does it impact our community? — Don, Frisco
The topic of food is not only an environmental issue; it’s a social justice conundrum. There are two major factors that continue to muddle the goal of food security for all people in all communities: production (who’s growing our food) and distribution (who’s receiving it). The use of the term “food desert” often relates to low-income neighborhoods that lack access to healthy food via transportation, location or absence of grocery stores. Many times, these same neighborhoods have much easier access to junk food at liquor stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants, which contributes to a host of health problems including obesity.
For example, in West Oakland, the population is roughly 30,000 people. Seem familiar? Summit County’s year-round population is around 30,000. In Oakland, the community has 53 liquor stores, 12 fast-food restaurants and zero grocery stores! In Summit County, we have a free bus transportation system that drops us at the doorsteps of multiple grocery and health food stores. Even though our community is short of year-round food production and working farms, we do have access to healthy food. But, can everyone afford it?
GRACE’s Sustainable Table project gives excellent insight into food security issues around the world (sustainabletable.org). The group cautions about the use and misuse of the term “food desert,” stating that the source or reasoning behind food deserts is the key. Poverty (sometimes in combination with other socioeconomic and political problems) is to blame for food insecurity.
This takes us back to food production and distribution. Clearly note, when I talk about food production, I am talking about how it’s produced, not how much is produced. Currently, the amount of food we produce as a society actually far exceeds the global need.
With food production, the farm workers often suffer from the injustices of our current food system. Casear Chavez, labor leader and civil rights activist, stated, “The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they (farm workers) make this tremendous contribution, they don’t have any money or any food left for themselves.”
Globally, there are tremendous problems with farm workers not receiving a livable wage for the food they produce. A great deal of these issues stem from political-agricultural practices right here in the United States. Sustainable Table points the finger at practices such as growing corn instead of vegetables (commodity crops versus food crops); the rise in demand for biofuels; and exportation of cheap commodity crops to the rest of the world, ultimately hurting small farmers everywhere.
In other words, if we continue to encourage the overproduction of commodity crops (wheat, soy, and corn), which feed into cheap, unhealthy fast food, we’re only supporting a broken system.
The solution might be food sovereignty, a grassroots phenomenon in which community activists focus on food production and access. The idea is that communities define and take charge of their own food systems, which may differ from location to location or neighborhood to neighborhood.
Control is in the hands of the people, not big agribusiness. Local farmers, economies and cultures benefit. For example, Sustainable Table finds that refocusing a community on local initiatives actually avoids the poverty cycle. Locally produced food essentially increases community food security.
Each community (and family) should have the power to take control of their own food system. Local food programs not only give people access to good food, they give people the knowledge and the skills to grow their own food, which promotes self-sufficiency, independence and empowerment.
One step toward gaining power is supporting companies, brands and farms that have food justice missions is a good start. You can also support Summit’s local food initiatives by joining us at the fifth annual Harvest Dinner at Vinny’s Euro American Restaurant in Frisco on Friday, Oct. 4. Proceeds benefit HC3’s local, sustainable food programs. For more info, visit www.highcountryconservation.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.