Grow It and We Will Eat: Creative food solutions to area food deserts

How long does it take you to score a reasonably priced banana in your neighborhood?

For Beth Low, director of the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition, this is one simple way to measure accessibility to healthy, affordable food choices. 
“In some neighborhoods, just getting a banana can be a significant feat,” she says. “First, you have to find it; then you have to be able to afford to buy it. If it’s in a convenience store, there’s a price markup that’s pretty significant. If you only have $2, you’re not likely to spend it on a banana, but on something more calorically dense, like a box of macaroni and cheese.” 
Low, a former Missouri state representative, says these are the choices that thousands of people living in food deserts in the greater Kansas City area face. The USDA defines a food desert as an urban area where a percentage of the total population lives more than one mile from a grocery store, or 10 miles from a grocery store in a rural area. 
The coalition — comprised of individuals and representatives of government, business and organizations — works on policy change that will impact food accessibility and food insecurity in a nine-county area (see accompanying map). It advocates for a strong local food system that provides healthy, sustainable and accessible foods for everyone. 
“Food insecurity isn’t just physical hunger, it’s also emotional — it’s not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” says Karen Seibert, coalition communications director. “It contributes to binge eating and yo-yo eating. And it contributes to obesity because if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you eat everything.” 
Lowe agrees. “The face of hunger and food insecurity in America used to be striking images of children clearly malnourished and underweight. The picture today is of the morbidly obese and malnourished. They’re getting more than the adequate amount of calories needed, but they’re not getting the vitamins and minerals that nutrient-dense food provides and that bodies need to remain healthy.”
Consuming low-nutrient, processed foods also contributes to diet-related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, Low adds. “And society ends up paying for these health costs.” 
According to USDA figures, Missouri ranks eighth and Kansas 15 among the 50 states in food insecurity. In Kansas, 20 percent of children under age 5 live in food insecure households, while Missouri has the fifth highest rate of child food insecurity in the U.S. 
The strain of the recession has made food insecurity and food deserts an even greater problem, Low says. “Grocery stores are closing. For example, an Apple Market in northeast Kansas City, Kan., closed earlier this year, and this had a huge impact upon consumers living within a seven-mile radius who depended upon it. Mom and Pop groceries go out of business, and then it’s 20 to 30 miles to the nearest grocery store. And farming has dramatically decreased in rural areas, so there’s less fresh food to access locally.” 
Something relatively new, however, is the increase in the number of working poor seeking food in suburban areas such as Johnson County, Seibert says. “Food insecurity is on the uptake in suburban areas because of underemployment and unemployment. Harvesters — the community food network — is seeing more working poor who can’t make ends meet. However, (suburbanite) issues are more resource/economic issues than one of access.” 
Improving transportation options is a primary focus of the coalition. When transportation is limited or non-existent, people tend to buy food with a longer shelf life, which usually means processed foods high in fat, salt and sugars. 
“On a city bus, it may take an hour and three transfer changes to get to a store, and then a person is limited as to what she can carry on the bus,” Seibert says. “This makes it difficult to stock up on sale items, carry bulk items, buy fresh food on a regular basis, or buy frozen items that could thaw on the ride home. Many single parents also have children in tow.”
And in rural areas, Low says, “traveling 30 miles to the nearest store, without transportation, can become insurmountable.” She adds that statistics also don’t take into account the number of people who live more than one mile from a grocery story but who don’t live in a poor community. “For them, they are also living in a food desert,” she says. 
The coalition is talking with the Kansas City Transportation Authority about possible route changes and times — as well as educational initiatives — that could benefit people living in food deserts. It also has ongoing conversations with elected officials and others about policy changes that could bring additional full-service grocery stores and other food retail sites, co-ops, community gardens and community-supported/shared agriculture (CSA) collectives into underserved communities. 
One coalition victory occurred last year when the Kansas City, Mo., City Council passed an urban agricultural ordinance that allows, under specific guidelines, onsite sale of produce from home and community gardens. “This creates money in communities, gives access to affordable food and helps fight blights,” Low says. 
Efforts also are being made to have at least 10 percent of food served in Kansas City, Mo., City Hall come from local farmers, and to rally local restaurant owners to purchase local produce. 
And in October, the coalition hosted its first annual “food day,” which encouraged people to eat, prepare and preserve local, sustainable foods and provided information on how to connect to local CSAs. Chefs also demonstrated how to prepare healthy foods, and nutrition educators shared recipes and ideas for eating healthy on a budget. 
But everyone, Low stresses, has the opportunity to be a citizen advocate. She encourages people to talk to human resources about food choices available at work and to school officials about foods served in school cafeterias, vending machines and given to children as rewards. 
“It will help create a groundswell,” she says. “We’re getting to a tipping point of mass recognition that access to affordable, healthy, quality food should be available to everyone. And it should be both economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Food Desert Initiatives
Juniper Gardens Training Farm: Community training garden on nine acres in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., sponsored by Cultivate Kansas City, formerly Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture. CKC also works metro-wide to help individuals and organizations start their own urban farms by providing land, resources and training. Its Healthy Food Team offers cooking demonstrations, healthy recipes and outreach education.
New Roots for Refugees: Juniper Garden’s most successful urban farm — a partnership between Catholic Charities and CKC — is a program that helps refugee women start their own farm business growing and selling vegetables. Produce is sold at area farmers markets on both sides of the state line and via its CSA.
Beans and Greens: Founded by CKC and the Menorah Legacy Foundation, this nonprofit organization works with participating farmers markets to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars, formerly known as food stamps. The program doubles the value of SNAP dollars, up to $30 a week per family. It also offers the same bargain for Kansans enrolled in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (currently, Missouri doesn’t offer this program).
Mobile Food Trucks: The Beans and Green trucks make stops in the food desert communities of Marlborough and Westside in Kansas City, Mo., and Argentine in Kansas City, Kan. They also accept SFMNP dollars in Kansas, and SNAP dollars in both Missouri and Kansas.
Urban Growth: Nonprofit organization in Overland Park, Kan., that provides fresh produce to charity through a network of community gardens. It also offers workshops on urban farming and sustainability.
Harvesters: Distributes more than 8 million pounds of produce each year through its network of pantries, kitchens and shelters. Last year, its total distribution was about 38 million pounds, with produce accounting for about 20 percent of its total distribution. The organization also teaches nutrition education and how to prepare healthy foods and produce.


Sancy's picture

Great content.I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. Thank you so much for sharing. Sancy


Now a days available to the things you require near your area is very necessary. Sometime we friends plan party but products we require to make delicious food is not available in local stores.
Ethan From Redstonecatering -

In our attempt to have a healthy lifestyle, we spend a lot of time and money buying foods which weren't grown locally. This initiative is our best chance to see how organic vegetables are cultivated. We can use these local products and with some help from this company that delivers fresh seafood we can cook some tasty and nutritious dishes, that meet our daily caloric needs.

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