by Whitney Kenerly

Organizations in Greensboro bring awareness to food desert crisis

Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp pointed to a package of ramen noodles, a bag of cheese puffs, and a sugary fruit drink. “This is your typical dinner for a child living in a food desert,” said Trapp.

Food deserts are defined as areas where at least 33% of residents live more than one mile from a grocery store and with more than 20% living below the poverty line. In a 2013 study by the Food Research Action Center, Greensboro tied with New Orleans as the second most food-insecure municipality in the country, with 24 identified food deserts in Guilford County.

These statistics are shocking. Trapp was surprised that food deserts were not made into a priority during the recent budget proposal and adoption process for the county.

“To me, this should have been a major issue, but it wasn’t,” said Trapp. “This is not a black issue, it’s a community issue.”

The problem is multifold. Major grocery stores are leaving areas of low wealth so that anyone without a car is forced to depend on nearby convenience stores and gas stations for food. These small stores make their profits off of alcohol, lottery tickets and cigarettes and are not designed to be a substitute for a full-service supermarket. Produce at these quick marts is unlikely to be fresh, local or organic but can still be more expensive than fruit and vegetables at chain grocery stores. Niesha Douglas is a UNCC Doctorial Candidate from the Greensboro neighborhood of Warnersville.

“I grew up in a food desert,” said Douglas. “If you don’t have the right transportation it’s hard for you to get to and from places like the farmer’s market or Whole Foods.”

Even if you can get somewhere with fresh produce, these foods may be outside of your family budget. According to FRAC the average weekly grocery costs for a family has spiked from $123 in 2007 to $145 in 2012. Processed foods are not only more affordable for families trying to cut costs, but they also have a longer shelf life.

While some Americans only have access to fatty, salty and sugary processed foods others are just hungry.

Matthew King is the driving force behind Vision Tree, a community development corporation that promotes sustainable urban agriculture. King believes that food deserts prohibit people from reaching their full potential. “When you’re really hungry, you’re not happy,” said King. “You’re not a productive citizen.”

But even if you can afford fresh fruits and vegetables for your family you are limited to what you can carry back with you. While someone with an SUV can load up enough food to make the trip down to Harris Teeter worthwhile, someone who can only carry two bags on the bus might not feel the same way, considering that one bag can barely fit a large package of toilet paper.

Marianne LeGreco is an Associate Professor at UNCG who works with the City Oasis Project at Warnersville and specializes in health communication and food policy.

“We live in one of the most food insecure regions in the U.S.,” said LeGreco. This is in spite of the fact that North Carolina has a $78 billion dollar agricultural industry with over 8 million acres of farmland. “It’s not a matter of who is growing the food,” said LeGreco. “It’s really a matter of poverty and access.”

Part of the Healthy Food Access initiative within the City Oasis Project includes the maintenance of community gardens where those in the neighborhood can have direct access to hyperlocal produce.

In Northeast Greensboro, Renaissance Community Co-op is continuing to raise funds and memberships in order to open an affordable community owned grocery store at 2521 Phillips Avenue. The neighborhood surrounding the Bessemer Center has been without a full-service grocery store since Winn-Dixie left the shopping center on Phillips in 1998.

Neighborhood shoppers would share ownership of the co-op, so that any profits made from Renaissance would be returned to the community. Lamar Gibson is the membership coordinator and fundraiser for Renaissance Community Co-op. Gibson has a background in community organizing and stressed the importance of creating a sense of shared responsibility around the co-op.

The food itself has to be affordable.

Gibson wants Renaissance Community Co-op to be more like a conventional grocery store than a natural and organic co-op like Deep Roots Market in Greensboro that focuses on high-end products.

Renaissance Community Co-op is expected to create 32 jobs in the neighborhood with starting salaries between $10 and $15 an hour. Living wages for employees are an important piece to the Renaissance Community Co-op.

The poverty component of food deserts is arguably the driving force behind the lack of access. If market research indicates that you live in a low-income area, grocery stores are less likely to open near you. If you are poor then you are unable to afford a car needed to drive to a nearby grocery store, but even if you can get there then you can’t afford the product. For Gibson, it is important to view the concept of food deserts through this lens.

“I have a friend who says, ‘there’s no such thing as food insecurity, it’s money insecurity,'” said Gibson.

As the goal of food accessibility begins to materialize in some of the City’s major food deserts, LeGreco and others worry that it might take time for people to adjust to the act of cooking real food instead of just throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave.

“We’ve lost our skills in cooking over the last generation,” said LeGreco. Fresh produce delivery services that have grown in popularity have also been used with lowincome families. In theory the service prevents waste while sharing leftover produce with families who might not have access to such products. The problem is that most people have no idea what to do with a box of bok choy or raw artichokes.

Still, the need for change is undeniable. The eating habits of many Americans are making the population gravely ill as rates of heart disease and diabetes remain significantly higher in the United States than in any other developed country.

For LeGreco, attacking this issue requires people who can be patient and just hang in there as groups work to change communities one step at a time.

“We just really need people to show up and be there,” said LeGreco. “And we need people to get involved from every district, not just East Greensboro.” !