Sante Fe’s MoGro truck; image source: MoGro

Growing a Solution to Food Deserts

Many of us spend quite a bit of time figuring out what to cook and which new restaurants to try. However, these seemingly little thoughts are actually quite a luxury to have, as many people are not fortunate enough to view eating as a leisure activity.

Two weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion about “Urban Green Innovators” and a lecture on Food Systems of New York. The topic of food deserts emerged in both instances.

‘Food desert’ is a term commonly used to describe an “extent of areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food”.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a 1-mile marker for urban areas and 10-mile marker for rural areas where there is little access to fresh, healthy, affordable food and instead is mainly served by fast food and convenience stores.

The USDA estimated that 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts and more than half of those people are low-income.

How Can We Provide Direct Access to Fresh Food?

One primary way to address food deserts is to directly provide underserved neighborhoods with access to affordable, fresh food. Bringing the food to the people include:


DC’s Lincoln Heights Community Garden; image source: Green Scheme via Facebook

Community gardens and urban farms often provide a healthy food supply, but not all neighborhoods have access to them. That’s why various organizations aim to introduce community gardens and urban farms to neighborhoods in food deserts.

The Green Scheme in Washington D.C. establishes community gardens in low-income neighborhoods and provides safe garden space for residents and youth to grow their own produce. In addition, they also run workshops to teach communities about nutrition.


NYC’s Green Cart program; image source: Smart Growth America

Many municipalities have introduced small scale vendors into existing farmers’ markets. New York City started the Green Cart Program in 2008, which issues a new vending permit class for selling fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts.

According to research last year, 44% of Green Cart customers earn less than $25,000, 71% reported an increase in consuming fresh vegetables and fruits, and 92% cited location as the main reason for shopping at the Green Carts.

Similarly, many cities encourage or facilitate the process to increase farmers’ markets in neighborhoods in need of fresh produce.


Sante Fe’s MoGro truck; image source: MoGro
Inside the MoGro truck; image source: MoGro

In situations where permanent community gardens or vendors are not feasible, a mobile strategy is gaining traction.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, MoGro uses a temperature-controlled truck to run a mobile grocery store for urban and rural food deserts. MoGro started by reaching Native American communities in rural areas and are now serving both Pueblos and non-Pueblo communities.

In 2013, University of Memphis introduced the Green Machine Mobile Food Market, which serves 16 areas in the city that have limited access to affordable, fresh food.

What if these direct supply strategies are still not wide-ranging or affordable enough?

While improved direct access to fresh food is gaining ground in food deserts, sometimes there’s not enough variety to offer to customers or the food is too expensive.


Large amount of residents in food deserts are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

Many recipients of this program either don’t have time to tend to community gardens or they can’t be available when green carts and mobile supermarkets stop by their neighborhoods.

GrowNYC’s EBT program; image source: GrowNYC

In New York, SNAP Gardens allow residents to buy produce at local community gardens by providing card machines for gardens that accept EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards. Similarly, GrowNYC runs green markets that accept EBT cards, further expanding the options for SNAP recipients.


Another, more encompassing, step to tackle the problem is to encourage supermarkets to move into food deserts. The Detroit Grocery Incubator assists local entrepreneurs to obtain training and experience to run grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods.

Inside Detroit’s Grocery Incubator; image source: Fair Food Network

Between 2004–2010, Pennsylvania established the Fresh Food Financing Initiative to attract supermarkets and grocery stores in urban and rural food deserts. In six years, 88 stores were created throughout the state. These programs have inspired similar initiatives at the local, state, and federal level.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to food deserts. It’s essential to identity the site-specific barriers to affordable, fresh food for each food desert such as poverty level, land use, and transportation systems.

Once barriers are identified, cooperation and efficient communication between governments, communities and other stakeholders is key. Food Policy Councils are increasingly being established to help facilitate cooperative efforts and to recommend solutions like those described in this post.

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