I used to live in a food desert, in the Temescal district of Oakland. I remember wandering the aisles of our local liquor-grocery store when I was young, searching for something I considered edible—something whose earthly origin I could at least recognize. I was always shocked to find that among the Corn Nuts, Doritos and Hostess Cakes, there was nothing resembling the beautiful vegetables that my Mom always brought back from her weekly trip to the Berkeley farmer’s market. Today, our gentrified neighborhood has abundant options for purchasing fresh food, like the weekly farmers’ market and the organic produce store on our corner. But I remember what it was like before, and I know that 23.5 million Americans continue to live without this kind of choice. 8% of the US lives in a food desert: a low-income area where a source of fresh foods is not available.
Living in a food desert doesn’t necessarily mean starvation—on the contrary, higher rates of obesity are found in these areas. That’s because fast food chains and the junk-food industry serve up highly palatable, energy-dense, low-cost foods to those who cannot afford or access anything better. But these are calories devoid of true nutrition. Nourishing, nutrient-rich fruits and veggies are nowhere to be found.
Access to fresh and healthy foods should not be restricted higher-class neighborhoods. If we really care about making more sustainable and healthful food choices as a nation, then we need to not only look at where our food comes from, but also where it gets to.
We can look to an Oakland Initiative for a simple and effective way to improve eating habits in low-income areas and offer education and exposure to healthy foods. Thanks to the Oakland Fresh program, twenty-two Oakland schools now have a volunteer-run produce stand where parents and children can buy locally grown vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, honey and whole grains at below-supermarket prices.
In a city like Oakland, where up to 40% of residents are forced to travel outside of their neighborhood to find fresh food, this makes a huge difference. The produce stands make it convenient for parents to feed both themselves and their children better. And this can even break even: during its first year of operation, Oakland Fresh distributed 2,000 pounds of food per week and grossed more than $100,000 in sales. Does the Berkeley School District have a program like this? Even if you don’t live in a food desert, chances are that children and their families could be eating fresher and more wholesome foods than they do now. Bring it to a PTA meeting. Express your concern about the fact that 32% of San Francisco’s children are obese, tell them about Oakland’s success, and explore whether your school could do something similar. If there is a farmer’s market near your children’s school, buy from them as much as you possibly can! Talk to vendors and encourage them to engage with local schools. We can plant seeds of change in America’s food deserts. Will you join us?
Hannah Kopp-Yates is a member of the Stanford University Class of 2012 and a B.A. Candidate in Human Biology.