Millions of people around the country face obstacles to fresh food.
What they eat instead often leads to obesity, diet-related illnesses
and premature death. Three activists from Los Angeles, New York and
Nashville take different approaches to reversing the trend, and sowing
organic solutions for the future.
As we cruise through a bleak section of South Los Angeles, Paul Robinson,
PhD, and I pass auto repair shops, a free-roaming pit bull, fast food
joints and corner markets that sell as much liquor as they do groceries.
This is the core of the food desert, he says as we park
outside a corner store and walk in, close behind an obese boy and his
slender friend. The heavier child scores some potato chips and the two
kids leave, while Robinson and I continue to walk around, pretending
to be shopping. Were really just looking at all the processed
foods that are sealed in boxes, cans or bags to ensure that they can
last on store shelves. We discover a few fresh items in a refrigerated
casea row of apples and a row of lemonsnext to a drink called
This is Robinsons turf. If you are licensed to sell food in Los
Angeles County, he knows where youre located. A geographical scientist
at both Charles Drew University and UCLA, he has created a computer
map with a variegated pattern of dots representing the countys
food sellers. In wealthier, whiter parts of town, the dots cluster tightly
together and frequently overlap, while in this area, populated by poorer
African-Americans and Latinos, the dots are few and far between.
Based on our data, Id estimate that around 800,000 people
in the LA area live in inner-city food deserts, Robinson says
later as we drive through the citys blocks-long produce district
Los Angeles is a breadbasket, he observes. Tons of
food comes in by truck and by train to the produce district and other
regional distribution centers, which are owned by multinational food
retailers. It comes in in massive amounts. Where does it go, and why
does it not reach certain areas?
There are various definitions of the term food desert, but
it is, essentially, an area with limited access to affordable, nutritious
food, especially in low-income communities. The lack of access is a
concern because food is the first medicine, says Robinson,
whose focus is medical geography. The doctor tells you youre
pre-diabetic and to eat healthy, but [if you live in a resource-deficient
area] where do you go to get the food that the doctor has told you to
The geographical scientist and four of his colleagues at Drew University
have a National Institutes of Health grant to find out. Theyre
visiting more than 800 supermarkets and doing a geographically strategic
sampling of the other 30,000 or so small markets and corner stores in
the greater LA area, in an effort to catalog what foods are actually
Robinsons research team is particularly interested in what items
stores carry that would enable a person to eat a DASH (Dietary Approaches
to Stop Hypertension) diet, which doctors prescribe to limit salt intake
and prevent or lower high blood pressuremeasures that can fight
the effects of osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Multiple, ongoing efforts seek to address the lack of healthy, available
food in LA:
It may be months, even years, before the results of these efforts are
known. Meanwhile medical geographers at Drew collect and analyze food
found on shelves today.
Robinson has an office in Lynwood, CA, 14 miles southeast of LA, in
an area that he labels a food desert. He recalls going to a nearby liquor/grocery
store one day a year or so back. As he was buying batteries, he overheard
a conversation that has stayed with him:
You cant give your kids that sugar water! an older
woman told a young woman with a baby stroller and two toddlers.
The younger woman defended her purchase. This is just to hold
the kids over, she said, until I can get to a grocery store.
For Robinson, it was a paradigm for a much larger problem: people putting
off till a more convenient timeor perhaps neverwhen they
can start shopping at a real market, finding a wider array of choices
and preparing healthier meals for their families. In the meantime, they
eat food high in calories, salt, sugar and preservatives, but lacking
in nutrition, which can lead to obesity, sickness and early death.
Some have suggested that the obesity prevalent in low-income neighborhoods
is a reflection of poor self-control. Robinson disagrees. He argues
that the lack of healthy choices is compounded by spotty transportation,
and few, or unsafe, green spaces where people of modest means can exercise
without high fees as a barrier. People are hostage to their environment,
and their mobility decreases as they get sick or they age, he
It is generally agreed that a number of businesses that used to serve
traditionally black and Latino neighborhoods in South Los Angeles and
surrounding areas, including grocers, fled and refused to return after
the Watts Riots of 1965, which started after white officers used force
on a black man suspected of driving under the influence. Five people
died, over a thousand were injured and $40 million in property was damaged.
A report by then governor Edmund G. Pat Brown identified
the root causes of the riots to be African-Americans anger over
high unemployment and inferior schools and living conditions.
In 1992, nearly 30 years later, another race-fueled uprising occurred
around the time of the acquittal of four white police officers in the
brutal beating of African-American motorist Rodney King. A second event
also added fuel to that fire: A Korean grocer shot and killed an African-American
girl who, the grocer asserted, was trying to steal a carton of orange
juice. Evidence at the scene raised doubts, but this much is clear:
The distribution of food, in a society divided by race, class and material
resources, is a volatile issue that has wracked Los Angeles for decades
and continues to scare off many businesses.
THE BRISTISH HAVE COME
Fresh & Easy supermarkets, owned by the British firm Tesco, are
an exception. The corporate website says, We believe in making
fresh and high-quality food accessible in every neighborhood,
which they seemed to back up when they set up shop in recent years in
such entrenched food deserts as South LA, and its neighbor to the south
Compton. When Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, showed up to for the
grand opening of the latter location, he was dubbed the Fresh Prince
A little over eight miles to the northeast of that store is the Hubert
Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center, which is definitely in the
food desert, says Robinson, who has been working with doctors
at the inner-city clinic. They know their neighborhood and that
their patients have challenges. So we presented them with this medical
application where they can use Geographical Information Services, and
One doctor told the medical geographer that the clinics patients,
typically, are morbidly obese and diabetic and that he warns them,
You can take medicine, but you also have to do the lifestyle stuff.
Robinson and his colleagues are working to support the lifestyle changes:
Were developing a system where they can put a patients
address at the center of a map, and then add the closest grocery-chain
stores, parks, fitness clubs and health clinics in a concentric
circle around where the patient lives. A doctor can then print out a
list of nearby facilities and give it to the patient at the end of their
Recently, after Robinsons doctor told him that he was pre-diabetic,
the scientist bought a glucose monitor and began testing his blood.
He also adjusted his eating habits and successfully downshifted out
of the pre-diabetic range over a period of months. But he has to bring
his food in from home, because theres little to choose from around
Sunset deepens into twilight as Amelia LoDolce rides her bicycle to
the Binghamton, NY, community garden that she manages. She pedals past
homes due for a paint job or a porch repair in the neighborhood that
she calls home. Its October, and she stops to talk and pick the
final peppers and tomatoes of the season for a salsa she plans to make
later this evening.
Though naysayers tried to talk her out of locating on the citys
Northside, concerned about its reputation for drugs and violence, LoDolce
felt they were stereotyping the low- to moderate-income area, and bought
a home there anyway.
Id done some community organizing with [the local grassroots
group] Citizen Action and gotten a feel for the neighborhood,
she says. Its really quiet, and I like living in an urban
Purchasing a budget-friendly home means that she can afford her mortgage
and graduate-school loan, while growing food in the Liberty Street garden,
just blocks from her kitchen table.
In addition to tomatoes and peppers, LoDolces summer crop included
kale, collards (my favorite), basil, beets, cabbage, green
beans, radishes and spinach. Now fall dictates that she switch out her
garden bed for the winter growing season. Beets are on the menu. They
like the cold, she says.
Though graduate school took her from upstate New York to Boston, LoDolce
was eager to return to Binghamton, where she had gotten her undergraduate
degree. I started to come back and visit Volunteers Improving
Neighborhood Environments [VINES] meetings when I was still living out
of town. Im passionate about sustainable food production,
she says. I cant think of anything much more rewarding than
growing your own food.
An employee of the citys planning department by day, LoDolce coordinates
one of four community gardens run by VINES in her off hours. A couple
of times a year, she goes door to door to say Hi to her
neighbors, and to drop off flyers inviting them to join the organizations
members for a meal.
WEEDING OUT PRIVILEGE
Even though I live a few blocks from the garden, she says,
Im still seen as an outsider sometimes. Some people think
I might be a student, or they think Im just some white girl from
another neighborhood. I try to be friendly so people can get to know
me, and I work to avoid making any assumptions about the people I meet
here as well.
Race and class can be a minefield, so LoDolce navigates carefully, downplaying
any special privileges others may perceive.
The sustainable agriculture movement has been a predominantly
white movement, she says, but the urban agriculture movement
tends to be more diverse. I think the urban ag movement is helping to
make the sustainable ag movement relevant to people of all ages, incomes,
cultures and races.
VINES members routinely talk about potential challenges in relating
to Binghamtons various communities. LoDolce says the organization
makes cultural-competency and anti-racism training a priority. The
whites in our group have to be aware of how we wear our privilege, and
make sure that were not going about our work in an insensitive
Volunteers have undergone training with an African-American city official
named Larry Parham, who takes them through exercises that show
us how our backgrounds can be very different, and how we may have had
some privilege growing up that we didnt know that we had.
LoDolce cites an article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the
Invisible Knapsack, by the scholar Peggy McIntosh, from which
she learned this exercise: You ask people in the room to form
a line, shoulder to shoulder. If, for example, they had 100 books in
their house when they were growing up, you ask them to take a step forward.
If they were the first person in their family to go to college, you
tell them to take a step backwards. After all the questions have been
posed, often the people who have taken the most steps forward are white,
and the people who have been left behind are Latino and African-American.
Its eye-opening stuff.
LoDolce became aware of the joys of gardening while growing up on her
familys farm in Otisco, NY. It was nearly 200 acres of mostly
wooded property. I fed sheep, cleaned barns, weeded gardens, made
jam, chopped wood, mowed the lawn. My parents involved us in everything,
because they believed it was important to see that the food we ate and
all the things we enjoyed didnt just come from nowhere; you had
to work for it.
GARDENS FOR TROOPS
Prior to the recent increase in urban gardening, LoDolce says, the practice
enjoyed a boom during World War II, when it was essential to produce
enough food for our nation. Growing victory gardens was a huge part
of the patriotic movement of the time. I remember an old poster that
said, Support your troops. Plant a garden. People really
banded together to grow food in urban settings.
After the war, she continues, people didnt have to be tied
to the land anymore, which they thought was progress. Wealthier people
had cars and could live in suburban areas and drive to urban areas.
I dont believe a lot of victory gardens stayed around much after
World War II. That perceived progress led the multitudes to sever
their agricultural roots altogether.
Dependence on others to grow our food comes at a price, as evidenced
by the fact that Binghamtons Northside routinely makes headlines
for its efforts to attract a supermarket that residents can walk to.
The last one closed more than 15 years ago. Those without a car often
resort to convenience stores, gas-station mini marts or other higher-priced
options. They may also spend part of their shopping money on transportation
to other neighborhoods with better markets, which limits how much they
can carry, and also may force them to forgo perishable items such as
meat and frozen goods.
In recent years, the Center City neighborhood also lost its supermarket
but gained the Binghamton Urban Farms Project, an offshoot of VINES.
While VINES, which was launched in 2007, doesnt rent out garden
beds at the farm, it does operate a produce stand there once a week.
On other days, the team sells fruits and veggies at farmers markets
in different parts of the area. The farm, which is on four adjoining
parcels where abandoned houses were razed, is leased to the nonprofit
organization by the city of Binghamton. The organization has invested
approximately $50,000 in the land through grants and donations, and
will likely put in an offer to purchase the property before its five-year
lease runs out, says LoDolce. The plot now includes a greenhouse, constructed
by 30 to 40 volunteers.
Overall, VINES had a really successful year, LoDolce notes.
Aside from farm sales, we have 60 beds in four gardens, and they
were all rented out.
As manager of Liberty Street garden, she collects the rents, distributes
the rules and makes sure that the beds are well-tended. Rental fees
for the four Binghamton community gardens range from $15 to $30 per
year per bed. VINES holds workshops on urban food production, which
provide information on growing crops in the raised beds, spacing plants
and preventing disease. Garden managers are also on call to offer advice
throughout the growing seasons.
RAISING FUTURE GREEN THUMBS
Although she doesnt bring it up in conversation, LoDolce has an
undergraduate degree from Binghamton University in environmental studies,
and a graduate degree from Tufts Universitys Friedman School of
Nutrition Science and Policy. The latter includes coursework in nutritional
science, agriculture and food production. She also learned how to overcome
common urban-gardening conditions, such as traces of lead paint in the
soil, which often leaches in when paint chips off of the old houses.
We produce affordable food that is sustainable and organic,
she says, and more people are finding their way to our farm stand.
Proceeds go back into the soil and also into a youth-training program,
which is coordinated by VINES and Broome County Gang Prevention. Last
summer, 12 teens got an education on how to grow fruits and vegetables.
LoDolce is committed to steering future generations away from conventional
supermarkets and back to the land. Her neighborhood garden is built
on the foundation of a house that was torn down a few years back; it
is sandwiched between the two wood-frame houses that remain. While roughly
a dozen beds have peoples names on them there, including hers,
a community bed provides herbs and some vegetables for neighbors to
take, and a childrens bed offers produce for them to sample.
We grew some cauliflower with the kids, and then we cooked it
and ate it, she says. I find that children are a little
more willing to try something when theyve grown it themselves.
LoDolce believes the experience of tending the soil enhances ones
childhood. Its really important to give urban youth something
that connects them with the natural environment, she observes.
Ive seen them transform over the course of a summer, especially
the ones weve had for a few years in a row. Ive seen shy
kids work in a group environment, develop leadership skills and build
One young man in the VINES summer program told me how he got stung
by a bee, took some plantain, chewed it and then put it on the sting,
and it didnt hurt anymore.
She goes on, Theyre learning that plants can be used for
medicinal purposes. Theyre learning about insects and getting
over their fear of bugs. Some of these things seem small, but they add
up to a big transformation.
During his first and second years of medical school at Vanderbilt University
in Nashville, TN, Ravi Patel worked at the student-run Shade Tree Clinic
in the citys East Nashville neighborhood. Its a community
that used to have 15 supermarkets, but nowbecause of urban renewal,
chain supermarkets closing, and store owners aging out of the businesshas
One day, four patients complained about not having access to healthy
food, he recalls, and all four of them had diabetes, hypertension
and high cholesterol.
Although hed learned about food deserts two years earlier, the
medical student had put them out of his mind as he got caught up in
an East African research project. Now four sick people reminded him
that there were pressing problems closer to home.
We did a research study and found that the biggest obstacles to
fresh food were distance, time, transport and childcare, he says.
We asked ourselves, How can we deal with distance and time?
It took people without cars two hours and several buses to get to and
from the store, not to mention the awkwardness of hauling gallons
of milk on a bus, he adds.
While groups such as Re/Storing Nashville work on getting healthier
foods into convenience stores and expanding transportation between food-desert
areas and high-quality supermarkets, Patel wanted his patients to be
able to shop near the clinic. But a stand-alone store appeared to be
unsustainable. As a student team developed a business plan, residents
of the local Edgehill community told them about the old market men who
used to drive through their neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s,
selling groceries out of the back of a truck. It made sense that, if
patients couldnt get to the store, the store could come to them.
As a medical student, I found the idea of helping people to eat
healthier kind of cool, Patel says. We provide health care
to make people healthier, and if we get them healthier food, it works
in a circle. These systems all depend on each other.
BUYING A TRAILER
The team developed a five-year business plan and went to local community
food advocates to talk through their ideas and ask for help. They sought
a $50,000 grant and ended up getting one for $65,000 from the Frist
Foundation, created by the family of former United States senator Bill
Frist, MD. ....
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