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A Food Desert Storm Brewing?

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January 31, 2009

A Food Desert Storm Brewing?

"Food Desert" - refers to a rural or urban low-income neighborhood or community with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

By Arnell J. Hinkle

I spent a few days this week in Washington, DC. The air was frigid, but there was a warmth in town, as people seemed to be relishing the post-inaugural change in leadership. Dulles airport now has an “Obama” store. It’s supposed to be a DC souvenir shop, but 95% of the merchandise was Obama-related… everything from earrings to chocolate bars.

I was in town for a series of meetings, one of which was on the concept of “Food Deserts.” The term refers to a rural or urban low-income neighborhood or community with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.. The two day meeting was full of researchers and academics studying the problem, each seeming to be staking out their territory of expertise. Of the twenty or so speakers, only a couple admitted that in spite of the stereotype, many low-income, ethnic communities have healthy, affordable food. Although it wasn’t necessarily in a typical food store.

Bodegas, tiendas, street vendors, produce stands, and guys on the road selling fruit are common in many communities of color. Across the street from the hotel I was staying in was a corner store that primarily sold liquor. However, upon closer inspection there was a cooler full of fresh beansprouts, bok choy, eggs, and even fruit. The locals in this Chinatown neighborhood don’t have a grocery store nearby, but they can buy a limited selection of fresh vegetables at the corner store or get prepared vegetables at any of the local Asian restaurants. I counted 12 such restaurants in a two block area - Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and even Burmese. It seemed to me that the real danger to community food availability in this area of Washington, DC was the redevelopment and gentrification that was going on…lofts, condos, and chain restaurants driving out the locals, and driving up the real estate prices (even in this down economy).

It made me wonder what redevelopment without gentrification would look like. It also made me wonder if studying the concept of “Food Deserts” will lead to more food availability in neighborhoods, or to more middle class people making their careers on this hot, new academic topic?

Do you live in a “Food Desert”? If so, share your story. If not, tell me about the healthy, affordable food in your neighborhood. In any event, you can use the Community Food Story form to share your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you.

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