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In Food Deserts, Small Businesses Offer Healthy Options

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Fewer Americans than you may think have easy access to healthy food. According to statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 23.5 million U.S. households live over a mile away from any supermarket and about 2.3 million of those don’t have access to a car – a little over two percent of all households in the country.

Areas like this, where there is little or no access to fresh produce or other healthy food from traditional supermarkets, are known as food deserts. In these neighborhoods, which are largely low-income and disproportionately inhabited by minorities, many residents have no easy way of getting to a store to buy nutritious food. Low-income zip codes are reported to have 30 percent more convenience stores – which are often stocked with unhealthy items like snacks, soda, candy, and deli products.

Some small business owners across the country, however, are taking it into their own hands to bring healthy food to people who live in areas with historically low access to healthy eating.

Tisha Crear, who opened vegan restaurant and juice bar Recipe Oak Cliff in Dallas, Texas in 2017, said that she wanted to help serve a community that needed more healthy options.

“There are hardly any grocery stores” in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, explained Crear. “There are a lot of corner stores, and a lot of fried chicken and fried fish.”

Recipe Oak Cliff / Facebook

While there are parts of Oak Cliff where gentrification has begun to take root, such as the Bishop Arts District, Crear said the part of the neighborhood where Recipe Oak Cliff sits is “the area where gentrification hasn’t hit.”

Crear stressed a lack of access to organic produce, saying that the closest place to get organic food was a small health food store about a mile away.

“So many people told us we couldn’t start a juice bar here,” she added.

But since Recipe Oak Cliff opened, Crear said she’s noticed people in the neighborhood being able to enjoy healthier options.

“I’ve had people tell me that that our BBQ jackfruit sandwich is saving them from eating a fast food sandwich,” she said.

The kitchen also offers classes including a vegan Ethiopian cooking class and an intro to plant-based eating class.

Crear said it’s a “really big mix of people” who come to Recipe Oak Cliff, including locals from the neighborhood and others who come from further away “because they just want good veggie food.”

Recipe Oak Cliff / Facebook

In Rock Island, Illinois, a father took it into his own hands to create a grocery store with healthy options in his underserved neighborhood.

Healthy Harvest, a family grocery store and healthy food hub in Rock Island, Illinois, opened in 2017 after Chad Summers and his family realized that they needed to go to several different stores to get all the groceries they needed. Summers and his son Nieko, 23, opened the store to give their community a way to get the healthy, whole foods they need in one place.

In a part of downtown Rock Island once known as “The District,” Healthy Harvest is a rare place to get affordable, healthy food in an area that Summers said was largely filled with nightclubs and entertainment venues.

Summers is on his fifth year of eating a plant-based, whole food diet. He initially started focusing on eating healthy during a battle with psoriasis, and is now committed to bringing healthy and plant-based food to his community in the quad-city area.

Healthy Harvest Urban Farms / Facebook

Healthy Harvest works with local farmers to offer fresh and organic produce to those who live in the neighborhood.

“Farmers are the rockstars of this movement,” mused Summers. “Without them, we’re totally subject to whatever they’re selling in big grocery stores.”

Healthy Harvest also includes the convenient Green Garden Cafe, a seasonal cafe that sells plant-based and whole food meals.

“There was nothing like that in the area before at all,” Summers said. “We make plant-based, whole food eating accessible for people in the neighborhood.”

In addition, Summers has turned the family’s Healthy Harvest Urban Farm into the Sprouting Minds Learning Farm, which helps gives students the skills they need to start their own community gardens at their schools. According to Summers, last year a group of 25 5th and 6th graders that he worked with grew over one ton of food.

Summers added that a big part of Healthy Harvest’s mission is education.

“For the first couple days, there were kids asking what plants Doritos or hot dogs came from,” explained Summers.

Healthy Harvest Urban Farms / Facebook

Later this year, Summers plans to work with Rock Island High School and the Rock Island Center for Math & Science to revitalize the terrace garden originally designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen at Rock Island’s Hauberg mansion.

Summers has high hopes for the project, saying that the group may be able to grow up to 15-20 tons of produce on the land that they can then send to food pantries and other food assistance programs in the area.

Other small business owners in historically low-income areas have noticed the effects of gentrification.

Chef Babette Davis, who owns vegan restaurant Stuff I Eat in Inglewood, California with her husband Ron, said that their neighborhood, close to South Central, was once a commercial hub with the Lakers basketball team bringing in business to the area.

“Years ago, it was diverse, with lots of businesses,” said chef Davis. “But then once the Lakers left, the money left with it.”

“Now it’s coming back,” Davis said, but the businesses opening and residents who are moving in are different.

“Because there’s no rent control, the people moving in are the ones who can afford it,” explained Davis.

She added that Bond, one of the closest supermarkets with prices she called “sky-high,” had recently renovated to add more produce.

“It’s because they know what’s coming,” Davis said, referring to the changing demographics of the neighborhood.

Davis, who has been eating a plant-based diet for 28 years, said her husband initially helped her go vegan to help her deal with health problems that she said came from eating the standard American diet, including asthma and eczema.

“Once I changed my lifestyle, my symptoms went away,” said Davis. After going vegan, Davis wanted to share the health benefits of whole foods and plant-based eating with others.

“That’s how the name Stuff I Eat came about,” she explained. “Because it was just the stuff we ate.”

SÜPRMARKT / Facebook

Before Stuff I Eat opened 10 years ago, Davis was working out of the parking lot of a spiritual center. She said there were huge crowds that would buy her food, and when the real estate that would become Stuff I Eat went up for sale, Davis assumed that her customers would follow her. According to Davis, they didn’t.

“So we moved into this food desert, and people didn’t follow,” said the chef. But while the restaurant struggled during its early years, with media attention and more people moving into the neighborhood, she said that weekends are packed.

“On weekdays it’s more locals,” said Davis, but on weekends the restaurant sometimes has a hard time finding enough seating for visitors from other parts of the city and out of town.

Davis said she was proud that her restaurant had provided a space for customers in the neighborhood to seek healthy and plant-based options even at a time when the area had been struggling. It still continues to offer healthy meals in an area with limited vegan options.

“It provides a place for [locals] to have a whole food, plant-based meal that won’t clog their arteries,” said Davis.

Stuff I Eat / Facebook

The U.S. government is still working to improve access to healthy food for low-income Americans. In 2016, the USDA proposed a rule requiring stores that accept SNAP to offer a larger variety of food options.

But what about those that don’t have easy access to stores?

The USDA’s Food Atlas is an interactive map that locates food deserts, implemented as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. You can go here to take a look and see which parts of your city or other parts of the country may have limited access to supermarkets.

If you’re interested in helping more people gain access to healthy food in your neighborhood, you can donate to a food pantry or call your representative and tell them to support local efforts like NYC’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program.

The FRESH program gives grocery stores financial and zoning incentives to open in parts of New York that are underserved by traditional grocery stores.

Shutterstock

Since the program started in 2009, 14 FRESH projects have opened, and 13 more have been approved. In 2017 alone, FRESH incentives helped two supermarkets open in areas that had previously had less access to healthy food.

On a national level, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is working to improve food access in food deserts through the Community Food Project, which provides grants to help communities to establish ways to access nutritious food like fruits and vegetables.

The Choctaw tribal community in Choctaw, Mississippi, for example, used a $300,000 CFP grant to build a greenhouse and a 10 acre food orchard to help provide healthy food to those in the area.

Life in food deserts remains a reality for millions of Americans. But there are still business owners who are working to promote healthy eating and food education for their communities.

In Oak Cliff, Crear said she was grateful to be able to bring healthy food to locals who she said had developed health issues from their diets.

“It’s a real joy to see people in the neighborhood having some kind of healing,” she said.

Lead Image Source: Healthy Harvest Urban Farms / Facebook

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