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Providing an oasis in a food desert

BLKProjek large ross-400Tanya Fields is single mother of four. So, in 2006 when she found an affordable apartment in the South Bronx, N.Y., she moved there, only to discover the real bargain she had made. In the South Bronx, a full-service grocery store is hard to find, and obesity is common.

Today, Fields is the director of her own nonprofit, the Blk Projek. She is also on the verge of launching what some experts who study the problems of neighborhoods where fresh, healthy food remains scarce think may be a solution applicable in other communities. In September, the BLK Projek will start selling healthy food options out of what Fields likes to call a "funky-fresh, environmentally friendly bus with dope artwork and real options the community controls."

Fields isn't, by far, the first person to cook up a mobile-market idea or make it happen. But, as a nonprofit veteran and black woman with limited income trying to raise a healthy family, Fields is fast emerging as an authoritative voice and activist to watch in the national battle to eliminate food deserts.

"Food is where social justice and environmental justice meet," said Fields. "It's been really refreshing to realize that today, there are other people who see that, too."

About 2.1 million low-income Americans or nearly 2 percent of the population live in areas with limited access to fresh food and do not have a car, according to the most recent federal data available. But a whopping 52.5 million low-income Americans live in communities that sit as far as 10 miles from a full-service grocery store.

Still, Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist at the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is part of a growing body of researchers who draw sharp distinctions between phenomena that may seem closely connected -- living in a food desert and becoming obese – and the conclusion that one causes the other. The data is not conclusive, said Ver Ploeg.

Mari Gallagher, a former federal researcher who in 2006 founded the Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, takes issue with the federal government's methods and insists that the relationship between life in a food desert and any number of diet-related diseases is clear.
In 2006, Chicago tapped Gallagher's firm to examine communities in that city where healthy food options were expensive and scarce and what could be done to change the situation.

Gallagher, who has been widely credited with popularizing the term "food deserts," and her team looked at every block in the city and those within a three-mile radius of town. They found that residents of food deserts were more likely to die prematurely from diet-related diseases such as diabetes and have a higher body-mass index. Food deserts were most common in predominantly black and Latino communities and weren't always limited to low-income neighborhoods. Subsequent studies in other cities, including Detroit, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. found a similar pattern.

"The truth is that people generally access the food that is closest to them," said Gallagher. "They may aim for health next week, or in the future. For right now they think, 'I need to get something to eat, something fast, something right now.' So that often means what is close by."

The reasons that full-service grocery stores exist only in specific spots are varied and complex. Compiling a tract of land on which a large supermarket can be built is often more expensive inside of a city than simply buying a large cornfield in the suburbs, Gallagher said. City-zoning and building-permit processes often complicate the work of trying to build a store inside an established city neighborhood and make it more expensive. And, grocery store chains each have their own criteria – some combination of available skilled labor, neighborhood population, income and average food spending, theft rates and insurance costs – that they use to determine where to put up their stores, she said.

Fields is trying to bring an alternative to her community.

Fields had worked a short time with a for-profit consulting business run by the South Bronx's most famous – and recently embattled – urban environmental crusader, Majora Carter.

With Carter, Fields attended her share of conferences filled with people concerned about the plight of people living in food deserts. But most of their solutions involved a collection of mostly white activists delivering food, setting up and stocking food pantries and delivering temporary aid to poor black and Latino residents who would have to apply, line up and accept whatever was offered. They were what Fields describes as noble but unstintingly temporary, paternalistic solutions.

"I don't mean to disrespect anything that anyone has done to truly try to help my community," said Fields. "But it seems like the public-health messages in our community constantly talk about what we are doing wrong. As I see it, my job and my goal is not to pathologize people, but to provide solutions."

First, Fields tried to establish a weekly farmers market. It never caught on.

Fields then hit the Internet. It wasn't long before she came across mobile food markets operated by nonprofits in Louisiana and Illinois. The idea seemed like an end route around several problems.

A mobile food store wouldn't require construction, land acquisition or the political wrangling it often takes to secure an incentive package. It would also allow customers to buy what they want, in a convenient location at regular intervals, Fields said. And, area residents could voice interest in specific fruits and vegetables and buy them without having to depend on the whims of donors or farmers.

But, the mobile food market was one of those ideas easier conceived than executed.

Fields and a small team at the BLK Projek spent a little more than a year applying for grants, researching options and talking to area farmers and food producers. Fields found a group of farmers who owned a fleet of buses, and they were willing to lend one to her cause and sell her food that she could resell in the South Bronx.

Then Fields discovered that a single round trip from the farms outside the city to the South Bronx in one of the old school buses cost about $320 in gas alone. And, the bus wasn't outfitted with the shelves, refrigeration or other equipment needed to safely store and sell food.

Fields and her team went back to a series of foundations and put out calls for individual donations online. They managed to raise $65,000 to convert one of the bus' diesel engines to one that can run partially on discarded (and free) cooking oil from restaurants, cutting the cost of a weekly round trip to the farms down to $150. Volunteers gave the bus a new paint job. Donations also helped the team purchase and install some shelving and refrigeration. The upgrades are enough to get started.

But the bus still needs new seats, more refrigeration, new electrical wiring, a generator and solar panels to help reduce its environmental footprint and operating costs. So, Fields is working to raise another $30,000 to $50,000.

In the interim, the BLK Projek's mobile market is expected to make its first South Bronx stop and sale in September.

"I am not a food purveyor or food-business person," Fields said. "Our goals, our metric, is how many families do we feed and turn into regular shoppers – meaning they make a purchase at least twice a month. That's how we'll gauge our impact."(

(Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.)

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