As you probably know, eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables promotes good health and helps to protect against many chronic diseases. But did you know that for almost 30 million people in America, and billions more worldwide, healthy, affordable food is difficult if not impossible to obtain?
Areas without access to nutritious, high-quality, affordable food are known as food deserts. People who live in food deserts don’t have a supermarket or grocery store within a mile of their home if they live in an urban area or within 10 miles of their home if they live in a rural area.
In the developed world, most of the people who live in food deserts have an abundance of highly processed, high-sodium, sugary options — and that’s about it. Is it any accident that these communities tend to have exorbitantly high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other food-related ailments?
Children living in poverty are seven times more likely to suffer from poor health, compared to children living in high-income households. But some people and organizations are changing lives and communities and standing as beacons of hope.
Like Taj Anwar.
To see her story and how she’s making a difference, watch this short, powerful, and inspiring video:
Are you inspired?
Taj is a single mom in Atlanta, GA, who is growing her own food and providing for her community.
Taj knows that simply giving people in food deserts better access to healthy food won’t solve the problem by itself. People also need education and help to understand how and why to choose different foods than they’re used to. Taj is teaching people how to change their habits and to move in healthier directions. (You can find out more about her work here.)
Gratefully, Taj is far from alone. All over the world, organizations are springing up to help turn food deserts into food oasis – and to transform the health of people and of communities. Here are some great examples.
Organizations working to build equitable food systems in food desert communities
- The Food Trust offers a comprehensive approach to improving food access in Philadelphia and across the U.S. They improve food environments; bring nutritional education to schools; work with corner stores to increase healthy food offerings and to help customers make healthy choices; manage farmers markets in underserved communities; and encourage fresh food retail development.
The Food Trust also founded the National Healthy Corner Store Network, which connects community members, nonprofits, local government, funders, and other advocates across the U.S. to share information, resources, and best practices on the latest strategies for healthy food retail in small stores. While the network is currently in the process of finding funding to relaunch its work, they already have some great resources to help people who want to build healthier communities through healthier corner stores. For example, they created a healthy guide to help corners stores learn how to sell healthy foods and attract more customers in a sustainable and profitable way.
Plus, their Healthy Food Access Portal has a large amount of information to support success planning and implementation of policies, programs, and projects to improve access to healthy food. The website has a funding section to help people finance healthy food projects, news about healthy food access, and a tool to help advocates better understand their communities.
- The Produce for Better Health Foundation aims to foster environments where people can include fruits and vegetables every time they eat. The organization provides resources for fresh food marketing and education.
- The Community Food Lab is a North Carolina-based design group that combines food systems research, design, and a social mission to invent new approaches to healthy food systems. They work with municipalities, institutions, nonprofits, developers, corporations, design firms, and individuals.
- Wholesome Wave is a nonprofit that works to make food more affordable and accessible in underserved communities. Their innovative initiatives serve more than 156,000 consumers and thousands of farmers in more than 40 states. They created the National Nutrition Incentive Network, which is a network of food producers and distributors who wish to help low-income shoppers have better access to healthy food options.
- Soul Fire Farm is a family Farm in New York that’s committed to transforming inequities in the food system. They bring diverse communities together to grow healing food, to develop sustainable agricultural skills, and to cultivate health — especially in the African-American and Latino communities.
- The Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of food choices. In addition to highlighting the unavailability of healthy foods in communities of color and low-income areas, they also spotlight — and seek to change — other food injustices, including the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the use of child labor and child slavery in chocolate production.
- Thrive Market is an online market which aims to make healthy living easy and affordable for everyone. Their customers can buy many non-perishable healthy and natural foods at wholesale prices. Through their Thrive Gives program, they donate a free membership to a low-income family, teacher, veteran, or student with every membership that’s purchased. They also provide educational content and grocery stipends to Thrive Gives program members. Find out more about their paid memberships (and how to get a free bottle of Nutiva’s organic coconut oil) here.
How You Can Help
If you believe access to good, healthy food should be a basic right, you can take action by supporting the organizations above and others working to improve access to healthy food. Some other innovative ideas for tackling food deserts include food co-ops, mobile food markets, and bus stop farmers markets.
Community gardens are pieces of land that are gardened or cultivated by groups of people. They are typically owned by local governments, nonprofits, or faith-based organizations. Individuals can also create community gardens by cleaning and cultivating vacant lots. Community gardens, urban farms, and backyard gardens can help make a difference to increase the availability of healthy, fresh food.
If you live in a food desert (you can see a map of food deserts in the U.S. here), the Food Empowerment Project recommends you start by helping those in your community understand what living in a food desert means and talking about ways to make changes. You can discuss the option of growing your own food, working with local retailers to sell healthy foods, and you can bring your ideas and concerns to policy makers, such as city council members and state legislators.
You can also support the #GiveHealthy movement, which is designed to enable people to donate fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods, and to heighten public awareness about hunger as a health issue. Most of the food donated to traditional food drives is unhealthy, but you can help change this and help support people facing food insecurity by donating healthy food online, sponsoring your own healthy food drive, or helping spread the word about the kind of food people facing hunger really need. Find out more and sign up for this nationwide campaign on their website here.