“Food deserts” are places in urban areas where people have limited access to healthy, fresh, and reasonably-priced food. The only options are hard-bitten markets where you can find cigarettes, cheap beer, and packaged snack foods, but nothing like apples, pasta, or milk. In Portland and Seattle, food deserts tend to be in low-income neighborhoods or suburbs where many residents rely on transit service or foot-power. (Think parts of northeast Portland or Seattle’s South Park, for example.)

Without ready access to decent grocery stores, residents end up over-spending, or buying food with limited nutritional value, or both. Fresh fruits and vegetables—so important for a healthy diet—are in short supply, if they exist at all. And you can forget about local and organic food. So food deserts can result in poor health, tight budgets for those who can least afford it, or long cumbersome bus trips to other neighborhoods. Worse, the problem of grocery access is most severe for the elderly, single parents, and the disabled. It’s not just an urban land use issue: it’s a problem with profound social justice implications.

To date, there haven’t been many satisfactory solutions. It’s tough to get grocers to locate to low-income neighborhoods for basic economic reasons. Compounding matters, perverse zoning laws and misguided advocacy often restrict or prevent the large-scale commercial development grocery stores look for. In recent years, some neighborhood activists have championed weekly farmer’s markets, backyard gardens, or city “pea patches.” For all the merit these local food ideas have, they’re patchwork solutions that can’t provide year-round reliable groceries to people with limited time and income. But there may yet be a solution at hand.

  • In a previous post on this subject, frequent commenter Matt the Engineer hit on an idea that I think is sheer genius. Why not take advantage of the grocery delivery services that are popping up all over? The Northwest is rich with Community Supported Agriculture programs that provide weekly delivery of seasonal local food. Larger in scale is British Columbia-based Spud (nee Pioneer Organics), a delivery service that specializes in both local and organic food and that serves Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. Spud’s current clientele is largely well-heeled, but there are more quotidian grocery delivery providers too, including Safeway. Even Amazon is getting into the game with AmazonFresh, currently serving only a handful of Seattle-area zip codes but expanding quickly.

    amazonfreshSo we’ve got low-income neighborhoods without access to healthy affordable food. And we’ve got grocery delivery trucks rumbling past on their way to tonier precincts. Why can’t we connect the dots?

    The idea is not, as you may expect, for vulnerable low-income populations to buy laptops, get high-speed wifi, and order heathful groceries. Even if the tools of the Internet Age were widely available and affordable—and they’re not yet — they wouldn’t be of much use to the elderly, immigrants with limited English, or folks who don’t have a credit card or bank account. But there’s no good reason why policymakers can’t intervene.

    It’s easy to imagine residents of low-income neighborhoods getting grocery delivery service in some lower-tech fashion. Social workers, community centers, or food banks could provide quick checklists for weekly delivery of free or subsidized fresh produce. Perhaps the efforts would be funded with public money or by nonprofit food banks. Or perhaps Amazon or Safeway would see low-income delivery service as an opportunity for good corporate citizenship. For a starter plan, one can imagine Seattle-based Amazon adding a low-income zip code next and then reaching out to community service agencies to find ways to deliver fresh food cheaply to those who really need it.

    Of course, the best long-term solution to food deserts may be to turn them green. We should be promoting compact walkable communities that support local businesses and grocers—and especially so in low-income areas. Having ready access to affordable healthy food shouldn’t be a luxury of the upper classes, it should be a basic building block of all city neighborhoods.

    Update 3/11/09: Apparently, Michelle Obama got the memo. A few selected quotes from an article in the New York Times:

    Mrs. Obama was praising the menu last week at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit drop-in center serving this city’s homeless. And she seized the moment to urge Americans to provide fresh, unprocessed and locally grown foods to their families and to the neediest in their communities.

    White House officials say the focus on healthy living will be a significant item on Mrs. Obama’s agenda, which already includes supporting working families and military spouses. As the nation battles an obesity epidemic and a hard-to-break taste for oversweetened and oversalted dishes, her message is clear: Fresh, nutritious foods are not delicacies to be savored by the wealthy, but critical components of the diets of ordinary and struggling families.