A Tale of Two Food Deserts

Growing healthy communities when fresh food isn't around the corner.

December 27, 2011

One county borders the Chihuahuan Desert, while the other county houses the gleaming towers of Chicago. One is 48 percent Latino; the other, 25 percent African American. One has 30,000 residents; the other, 5.2 million. Grant County, New Mexico, and Cook County, Illinois, appear to have little in common. But in both counties, one out of every four children lives below the poverty line. And in both counties, there are food deserts.

A food desert is an area without any major supermarkets, where the residents don't have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Low household income, lack of available transportation, and climate are all factors that can create a food desert. Those issues caused the food deserts in both Grant County and Cook County, and spurred two very different groups to create new solutions for the same problem.

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Recognizing the Problem
Until an article about his neighborhood, Englewood, showed up in the Chicago Tribune in 2006, Steve Casey, a grants and budgets manager at the MacArthur Foundation, didn't even know he was living in a food desert. Jeff Pinzino, a community organizer, read the same article and thought it crazy that the communities on the West Side of Chicago were living without grocery stores. In the summer of 2007, a mutual friend introduced the two men, and Casey and Pinzino began brainstorming ways to fix the situation.

Sheelah Muhammad didn't need an article to tell her about the situation on the West Side. She was raised by a grocer who brought health foods to his customers on the South Side of the city for nearly 40 years. She knew that there had been a massive disinvestment by grocery stores in this part of Chicago. A friend conducted a study in which he asked local children what color a banana was; based on what they saw at the local bodegas, the majority of children answered "brown." When Muhammad met Casey and Pinzino, she already knew about the problem and was ready to help find a solution.

Meanwhile, 1,550 miles across the country, Alicia Edwards was always tuned in to the needs of her community. As the director of The Volunteer Center of Grant County (TVC), a nonprofit organization, she dispatched volunteers all over the county. TVC helped groups of all causes and sizes, but Edwards felt that there was a bigger goal toward which they should be working. She realized that the common denominator of the people she served was poverty and a lack of access to food.

Edwards lives not only in a food desert but in the actual desert, as well. Grant County, New Mexico, is large—3,968 square miles—and situated between high desert and arid mountain landscapes. Rain in Grant County is sporadic, to say the least. It is 150 miles from the nearest semi-metropolitan area, and copper mining and ranching define the lives of the residents. The beautiful landscape attracts artists, writers, thinkers, and doers, and, as Edwards says, "the intellectual and creative possibilities here are endless." It was the perfect place to test a new model of community gardening, even though the question on everyone's mind was, how do you grow anything in Grant County?

Finding a Solution
Casey and Pinzino initially wanted to open a brick-and-mortar store, but the overhead would be too much, and it would help only the people in walking distance of the one location. Community gardens? A great idea, but as Pinzino points out, "A garden in Chicago only gives fresh food 5 months out of the year." They needed to benefit as many people as possible year-round.

Then things began to come together when Pinzino started thinking mobile. Muhammad, who knew that they had to bring the fresh food to the people whom grocery stores had long ago abandoned, joined forces with the organizers. The group acquired the biggest vehicle that they knew could plow through streets in winter—a Chicago Transit Authority bus—and dubbed their program "Fresh Moves." Providing any organic produce seemed out of reach at first, but a local food supplier worked with them on a pricing structure that allowed them the least amount of risk selling organic alongside conventional.

Across the country, in order for the people in Grant County to address the issue as a community, Edwards knew that first "they had to buy in to the fact that there was an issue." In 2008, Edwards held town hall meetings for ideas on how to combat the problems the county faced. She found that residents were as focused on the need for healthy food as she was, and they wanted to get food to populations most in need of it: children and seniors.

The concept of community gardens is very different in a rural community, Edwards says, because one large garden will reach only the small number of people in the surrounding area. To be effective, the gardens would have to be widespread. TVC would help in the setup, but local groups needed to step up and take responsibility for running the gardens.

"Kids in a Candy Store"
The first day on the Fresh Moves bus looked to be a dreary one. It was raining, and no one knew if people would even show up to this grocery on wheels. But as the day progressed, lines snaked out the door. Muhammad smiles even now thinking about it, calling the day "wonderful, amazing, fulfilling, exhilarating." Sixty people went through the truck in the first hour. Pinzino remembers people walking to the checkout with an armful of produce and a handful of cash; when their totals were lower than they expected, which was almost always the case, they ran back to get more food. "They were like kids in a candy store," he says, "except this candy is all natural and good for them."

Muhammad says getting people to buy things like kale isn't a problem—they aren't ignorant about vegetables; they just haven't had access to them. What is a challenge is convincing older customers about the importance of organics. The last time they had such a wide range of choices, chemical and pesticide residues weren't as much of an issue. Kendall College creates recipes for customers, and a bulletin board allows people to share healthy family recipes. Casey's most touching interaction came with an older woman who was standing at the end of the line, waiting to get on the truck. "I asked her, 'What do you think about the bus?' 'Love it.' 'When's the last time you saw something like this?' 'You ain't old enough. I've lived here 60 years. If [food] corporations gave a damn, they'd have done this themselves. It has to have someone who cares differently in order to turn the corner. Clearly you give a damn.'"

Three years ago, there was one community garden in all of Grant County. Now there are eight, and that number is growing. Each garden chooses its own beneficiary: One children's garden grows produce to sell at the farmers' market, another's produce goes to a local food pantry, and yet another is a gleaning garden for whomever happens to walk by. The gardens favor traditional foods that have been grown in the area for centuries, including squash, corn, apples, tomatoes, and tomatillos. The key to successful growing in New Mexico? Strategic watering.

Edwards is amazed at how the gardens have "created this idea of possibility... In 3 years, the topic of food and how we're going to deal with food issues has exploded in this county." Recently, "a little girl came to a garden and harvested a tomato. The next day she was back with her parents saying that this is what she wants to do. The first time kids eat something they've grown, that makes it all worth it."

"Start a Revolution"
The future is bright in Chicago and New Mexico, although it isn't without work. In Chicago, Pinzino wants to inspire mainstream grocers to come back to the area. "If they would leave the neighborhood stereotypes behind," he says, "they would see that there's real opportunity here."

Edwards, for her part, envisions a garden on every corner in Grant County. She says TVC is still tackling the problem of access to transportation in such a large, sparsely populated county. The next goal is a food-security center, which will house a garden, a food pantry, and a space for food education. She has seen how access to food can change a community. She knows that "we can start a revolution with gardening, and we need to do that everywhere." •

Find some of Kendall College's recipes for Fresh Moves at OrganicGardening.com/freshmoves.