Food Oases

Many people have heard of the White House vegetable garden and Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign to reduce childhood obesity through exercise and healthy eating. Food policy is prominent in the national consciousness, and many of us shop at farmers’ markets or try to eat locally or seasonally. But in poorer areas across the country, many people do not even have access to fresh food, making them disproportionally affected by obesity, diabetes and other health problems. In Washington, DC, various nonprofits are working to improve healthy food availability. Some organizations deliver produce to low-income areas; others teach gardening, cooking and nutrition classes. Community gardens allow people who do not have a yard to grow their own food.

The different wards (subdivisions of the municipality) of DC vary wildly in wealthiness. The poorest wards have been defined as “food deserts,” or areas where people don’t have a grocery store within a one to two mile radius of their home. According to DC Hunger Solutions’ 2010 report, Ward 3 (the wealthiest in the city) has one full-service grocery store for every 7,343 people, while neighboring Ward 4 has only one for every 38,440 people. Though a mile or two is not far to travel by car, it grows tiresome for those who have to carry groceries home on foot or on a bus–especially with children in tow. This encourages people in the “food deserts” to rely on corner stores dominated by nonperishable processed foods. A 2002 study shows the strong link between grocery store density and fresh food consumption–fruit and vegetable intake increased by 32% for each additional grocery store in a census tract.

One method of improving access to healthy food in low income areas is expanding farmer’s markets. Encouragingly, the Ward 8 farmer’s market offers a ‘matching dollar’ program, where for $10 of food stamp benefits, residents can buy $20 of produce. But Wards 7 and 8 currently host only two of the District’s thirty farmers’ markets. DC Hunger Solutions has lobbied to smooth the process to get a permit to open a farmer’s market and teaches market organizers how to process food stamps as payment. Thanks to their efforts, the number of markets that accept food stamps has doubled.

The DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners Initiative also follows the model of delivering fresh food to low income areas, bringing produce to corner stores in Wards 5, 7 and 8. The Healthy Corners program sells store owners produce at wholesale prices and offers free refrigeration. Fruits like apples, oranges and bananas are placed by registers, making it easy to buy fruit for a snack; common cooking vegetables are also displayed prominently. So far, residents seem to appreciate the new food choices. The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture will launch a similar initiative this spring, bringing a “Mobile Market,” or converted school bus full of produce, to “community centers, schools, churches, Parks and Rec sites, senior centers—-places with a foothold in the community that can do outreach on our behalf,” says Benjamin Bartley, the program manager.

Other organizations teach cooking, gardening and nutrition in order to help build a healthier food culture in the District. Common Good City Farm teaches workshops on a half-acre farm in LeDroit Park—since 2007, they have taught more than a thousand DC residents, as well as involving two thousand volunteers. (And through their “work for food” program, Green Tomorrows, residents living below the poverty line receive produce in exchange for helping maintain the farm.) Arcadia’s Farm to School program holds in-cafeteria taste-tests of recipes made with farm produce; and the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s Green Summer program (unfortunately suspended due to lack of funding) employed teenagers at their garden in Fort Totten over the summer of 2010, where in addition to working the garden, teens learned to cook meals from farm produce. In all the organizations, hands-on learning has proved an effective tool.

Cooking and gardening education is a necessary counterpart to produce delivery. In neighborhoods where fresh food has been never been easily accessible, changing eating habits requires a cultural shift. Growing their own food gives people a sense of pride and ownership, changing the foods they prefer, especially when the produce is cooked well. One teenager in the Green Summer program said, “We got tomatoes from the garden, and herbs, squash, peppers, and made lasagna. It was good, even though we had no meat!”

The District’s food culture does not have to be rebuilt from scratch; as the 1,816 people who tend plots in 36 community gardens across the city attest, there is a long tradition of food gardening. The trouble is that demand exceeds garden space—-many gardens have two-year-long waiting lists. But despite their limited scope, community gardens help those who can get a plot develop a connection with fresh produce.

In addition to teaching people to appreciate fresh food, community and teaching gardens offer a host of less tangible benefits. In neighborhoods made of crumbling brick and cement, a garden is a physical oasis, a peaceful place where people can work with their hands, or just relax, surrounded by green, growing things. “It is very healing to be at the farm, to be in that natural environment and exposed to the cycle of garden life,” said Mary Autumn, a Green Tomorrows program volunteer. A teenager in NFI’s Green Summer program said he enjoyed weeding because it “frees your mind from a lot of things; you just forget what you’re doing.” Another enjoyed “digging the beds…you can take your frustration out on the dirt.” Gardening, and more broadly, being outdoors, is good for everyone’s health and well-being.

Gardens also help build community by offering a “third place” outside work and home, where people can leave their worries behind and enjoy one another’s company. Like coffee shops, main streets and neighborhood bars, gardens are informal places that people enter and leave at their own volition, freely mixing work and play.

The injustice of food deserts will have to be resolved through both local and institutional action. Organizations like those that have sprung up in Washington, DC mobilize change on the local level; but dedicated, long-term funding should underpin such initiatives nationwide. Supporting and expanding programs will not only improve peoples’ nutrition, but help them develop skills and confidence, and enrich their quality of life.