What Is… A Food Desert?

“Food deserts, not to be confused with food desserts”

Everyone loves a tasty dessert. I could name off a few and my mouth would start watering.

For a lot of our mobile-market participants, desserts (and other processed foods) are EASY to find when you live in a food desert. Fruits and vegetables, not so much.

Food deserts are sneaky, you see, because of the many subtle factors that contribute to it. You could  live right next to one and not even know it!

Food deserts are found by looking for the census tracts (subdivisions of ~4,000 people inside of a county) with low income and low access to grocery stores.

A low income census tract is defined when at least 20% of the census tract is under the poverty line, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A low access census tract can be defined by showing that 33% or more residents of a census tract must travel a mile (in urban areas) or ten miles (in rural areas) to reach the nearest grocery store.

According to the USDA, 12.8% of the US population fit the low income/low access criteria.

A food desert exists here in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, surprisingly enough. The residents of two of our downtown mobile-market locations have to travel a mile to get to a grocery store with fresh produce. Many of them are elderly or in wheelchairs and getting to the supermarket is difficult, to say the least.

We have a ongoing series called Q&A Thursday where our executive director, Josh Harris, explains terms related to the food access system. Josh continues our series with some field reporting on the topic of food deserts at two of our downtown mobile-market locations.

Take a look.

What’s Really Happening in… Small Town USA

We met with the mayor of a town not so far from Little Rock and our visit blew my mind and reset my perspective on small town living. Here’s some facts about this tiny dot on the map:

# of Families: 200
Stoplights: None
# of stores with processed foods in town limits: 2
# of stores with fresh, unprocessed food: Zero
# of community buildings owned by the town: Zero
# schools: Zero

The mayor, with a weariness caused by many years of little progress, described to us the dire situation as she gave us a tour. She has many projects that are doomed to never start due to lack of funding.

The water pipes underground are completely rusted and have been unsafe for years. The water tower is an ugly shade of rusted orange.

We were searching for a suitable building fit to hold our food programs. We walked around the plot that had once been the only school 10 years ago. To this day it remains unused and overgrown. Though the mayor would like to purchase the land to put it to use, that project has been pushed way into the future.

We drove to the the small fire station on main street. It was large enough to host a program but its crew consists of three volunteers living outside of town. There were a few churches but all their pastors live outside town, the mayor explained, so they don’t have office hours during the week for us to host a program.

Josh asked her if the town had any community centers as we walked around a small park on the edge of town. The mayor confirmed that there are none and said the kids have nothing to go to after school.

We finally landed on the town’s library (owned by the county, not the town) which has just enough room to do a mobile food market and education.

For many of the residents that will participate in our monthly program, the produce we provide is the only produce to which they have access. The nearest fully-stocked grocery store is 15 miles away, a fair distance for residents with unreliable transportation. And for a family with low-income, produce is expensive and not even on their shopping list.

The nearest fully-stocked grocery store is 15 miles away

Even a food bank is just as far away and, if you have read our article about food banks, you will know that they are a short-term solution to these needy people’s chronic health issues.

The moment I love the most, and the type of help I believe makes the biggest waves, was when Josh suggested the mayor should partner with the Boys and Girls Club to construct a community center in the town. I see two things here:

  1. The mayor seemed to be stuck without a solution.  All she needed was someone’s fresh perspective and see a solution.
  2. You can’t get anything better than a win-win! A local business helping a local community so that they both benefit, that’s neat.

There’s hope for this small town. With some years of external community investment, it’s residents can have a much better situation.

What’s Really Happening in… Food Banks

Chances are you know what a food bank is. Maybe you have volunteered for one. They are free food distribution organizations and their one purpose is to alleviate hunger. And they accomplish their purpose well by giving a lot of food to a large quantity of needy people.

Although food banks do a lot of good to get food to hungry people, there are three gaps

It’s not always nutritious food.

Hunger is alleviated by a food bank to the detriment of a healthy diet.

You might ask, isn’t it better to have a full meal of filling, but unhealthy food than to have no food at all? We would agree, however, food banks can actually do more harm in the long-term than good.

Because a food bank receives large quantities of donated food to distribute and have to store the food for long periods of time, they typically can only receive non-perishable food items. Their shelves are stacked high with canned goods and processed foods but rarely with fruits and vegetables.

In fact, according to a UAMS study published in the journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which surveyed 357 food pantries representing 5 food banks across Arkansas, they found only 18.5% of food pantries had written nutrition guidelines.

Food bank participants receive food that perpetuates their chronic diet-related illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. This amounts to high medical bills; The excess total healthcare cost associated with food insecurity is $1,607 per food insecure adult in Arkansas according to Feeding America.

However, a food bank hand-out makes up a large portion of the diet of 5% of US households because it is the only source that is affordable.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery prices rose 5.4% since October 2020 and meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose with a combined total of 10.5% from Sept 2020 to Sept 2021.

Not everyone has access to food banks

To make the situation even more complex, there is another portion of US households that do not have the physical capability to get to a food bank due to a handicap or unreliable transportation.

Food banks perpetuate food waste and do not promote the dignity of choice

Only 19.3% of food banks in Arkansas offer client choice. That means the majority of food bank participants do not select the food they take home so their bag may be filled with food they may not like or want, increasing food they will end up wasting.

This is where Well Fed is uniquely set up to help.

We have video series called Q&A Thursday where our executive director, Josh Harris, explains terms related to the food access system to help you learn more! To start the series off, Josh explains the “gaps” in our current food access system and how we’re filling them.

Take a look!

What Is… Produce Prescription

This article will take you on a journey to discover what produce prescription is and why it could become the new “drug” doctors prescribe.

  • What is it? It is a program to improve the overall health of a participant through a medically-prescribed diet.
  • Who is eligible? Participants that have documented challenges accessing healthy food and/or they have a diet-related health risk such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. 
  • Who runs the programs? Typically a non-profit partnering with a healthcare organization
  • What is the goal? Produce Prescription Programs are designed to treat food as medicine.

The Process

A program participant will go through an initial eligibility screening. The health professional will identify their food-related health risk. The participant’s diet is repeatedly supplemented with healthy food and nutrition and cooking education and medical data is collected throughout the program and finally evaluated to determine the success of the program.

How do you define success?

When test results show biometric improvement related to their individual health risk that was determined at the beginning of the program.

See the problem?

  • Diagram 1: Inadequate distribution to the Southeast with only 9 out of the 108 programs in the US
  • Diagram 2: Shows a high vulnerability for food-related health risks in Arkansas and no food prescription program present

Our Evaluation

Produce prescription programs are incredibly beneficial medically to individuals in high health risk communities and financially to the local produce growers.  It has been done in different ways with varying barriers and results. Unfortunately, location-based programs or programs that require a participant to redeem a voucher at a market are often inaccessible to a low-income community with limited transportation and child care assistance.

We believe the best program is mobile and connected. Take another look at diagram 2 above. Well Fed has already finalized a partnership with a local healthcare organization to create the FIRST on-site produce prescription program in Arkansas!

It is a sad fact that many rural communities do not have grocery stores with a sufficient produce aisle (Dollar Generals don’t count) and many individuals cannot maintain healthy diets. With a partnership with a local healthcare organization, we hope to empower participants to transform their diets and see measurable positive results!

We will simultaneously create valuable data for our Arkansan medical system to tangibly view the positive impact a produce prescription program has on their patients. Ultimately, we want to see as many produce prescription programs in Arkansas as there are in New England or the Midwest!

Our article is a synopsis of a larger, more detailed study done by the NPPC (National Produce Prescription Collective). Read more here.

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