The Trouble with Trying to Grow Health in a Food Desert

Liz Biscevic

In many parts of the world, even low-income communities have access to fresh, local produce. But that’s not the case in the U.S., where affluent neighborhoods get organic fruits and vegetables in pressed juice, grocery bins, and delivery boxes, while low-income communities are targeted by fast food chains and corner stores full of empty calories and eye-popping markups. While it lacks the immediacy of famine or drought, unequal access to healthy food is nevertheless a serious problem, mostly because its source is unclear: Is food scarcity in these areas due to lack of supply or lack of demand? Across the country, businesses and organizations are trying different tactics to see what resonates among America’s poor and poorly fed.

Corey Rennell, the founder of Core Foods and the Bay Area’s Core Kitchen, lives in a “food desert” in East Oakland—an area with few grocery stores, but fast food and convenience stores aplenty. In the United States, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, and of that number, over half are low-income. “You see very institutional, structural problems in food deserts,” Rennell tells me over the phone. “Because there’s no grocery stores, people buy their food from convenience stores, and because convenience stores have no produce, people build their whole food lifestyle without produce.” Because diet preferences are learned from a young age, that set up can perpetuate generations relying on highly-processed, carb-heavy food that can cause debilitating, even fatal, health problems.

By contrast, Rennell’s packaged and restaurant meals are vegan and chock-full of organic plants, designed to satisfy appetites quickly and nutritiously, though right now you can’t walk into a 7-11 and buy a Core “oatmeal to go” or find a Core Kitchen outside of Oakland’s downtown business district. Rennell hopes that as Core Foods expands, its convenience foods and novel restaurant idea (it claims to be the world’s first ‘produce-only’ eatery) will give busy working families in neighborhoods like his more options and get them “on board philosophically with healthy eating.”

Today, nutritionists say that kids may need to be introduced to a food between eight and 15 times before they accept it. That means when you make your children a spinach salad for the first few times, chances are they aren’t going to eat it. While middle- and upper-income families can afford to repeatedly introduce healthy dishes that may not get eaten (and the luxury of throwing away fresh produce), for low-income parents who don’t have the budget or schedule for second meals when the first isn’t well-received, healthy cooking becomes even more of an expensive hassle.

Thus, for working parents on a tight budget, picking up fast food or a microwavable meal from a corner store is more affordable and less time-consuming than cooking a meal using fresh ingredients. “There’s a reason why people eat soda and chips in low-income communities,” says Rennell. “It’s a very high return for their dollar in terms of calories.”

Retailers are experiencing how intractable those decisions can be as they try to expand healthy options into communities in need, to mixed results. In September of last year, Whole Foods opened in the Engelwood area of Chicago, where the median household income is $20,500—four times lower than the demographic the chain generally targets. In its effort to serve that community, Whole Foods priced staple items lower than at other locations, dedicated shelf space to nearly 40 local vendors, and offered healthy eating classes. But that store continues to struggle with the perception that its goods are too expensive, and Whole Foods has had to go beyond traditional marketing, adding community outreach to welcome people into their store and introduce them to less familiar fruits and vegetables.

In other countries from France to Thailand, produce is grown near the markets in which it’s sold, and has been for centuries, creating a wealth of knowledge about flavors, preparations, and cultural relevance, as well as a consistent source of nutritious food. It’s not like that in much of the U.S. today, where any produce, let alone items that carry familiar cultural connotations like yams or plantains, can be hard to come by.

In a 2013 Al-Jazeera report exploring food deserts in America, Tanya Fields, founder of The Blk Projek, describes trying to get healthy food as a single, working mother in the Bronx as an “exhaustive trek.” Though there were convenience stores that sold food within walking distance, the few perishable items were much more expensive than they’d be at a typical supermarket. So she’d take a train to the Upper West Side to buy groceries.

In 2013, Fields founded The South Bronx Mobile Market, a school bus converted into a mobile farmer’s market that delivered fresh produce to her community. They sourced entirely from local growers and employed local people. Today, initiatives to bring healthy food choices and fresh produce to the South Bronx are prominent. Swale New York is a “floating food forest” in the form of a community garden that drifts along the Bronx river. Residents are able to take advantage of educational programs and cooking classes, and harvest herbs, fruits, and vegetables for free. In 2011, New York City subsidized a new supermarket in the area. But despite these initiatives, a study that surveyed the South Bronx found that access to a supermarket did not influence buying decisions, with respondents still bypassing fresh ingredients in favor of quick packaged meals.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader, founded Groceryships—a nonprofit that aims to help people make healthy choices through cooking classes, free produce, support groups, and nutrition education in South LA. Through the support groups, Groceryships staff realized a major barrier wasn’t necessarily access, but time. That led Polk to found Everytable—a grab-and-go eatery that sells affordable, healthy meals like chicken tinga with chayote squash, blackened fish with collard greens and sweet potatoes, smoked salmon bibimbap with cauliflower and kale, and kid food that sneaks in veggies a la Jessica Seinfeld. Everytable has plans to open in both wealthy and low-income areas, pricing meals to match local customers’ income and using profits from the higher price point to subsidize selling the same meals for much less in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

For Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) in Los Angeles, it’s frustrating that such a business must be launched by someone outside the community it seeks to serve. Instead, Espinoza believes the potential for low-income residents to feed themselves healthfully is there, but stymied by overregulation. “The food economy has potential to fuel economic opportunity, especially in low-income communities,” Espinoza tells me during the Social Capital Markets Conference in October. “In Los Angeles, low-income entrepreneurs in the food space have a lot of challenges.” Locally, it’s illegal to sell food out of your home or on the street, making it difficult to grow a business from a micro level. Without being able to launch a company from that stage, entrepreneurs must raise the funds to open a brick-and-mortar or food truck and secure the appropriate licenses. Considering that 80 percent of entrepreneurs get their initial funding from friends and family, and that, in 2016, the median net worth for white families was $171,000, $20,700 for Latino families, and $17,600 for black families, it’s clear that would-be food innovators living in LA’s low-income communities of color are at a significant disadvantage.

LURN’s Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign is an initiative to legalize food vending on the city’s sidewalks. Despite not being able to scale their business, the solo street vendors in LA have a long history of offering fruit cups, fresh corn, or tacos, familiar items that can be quick, healthy, and affordable for the low-income Latina/o residents that make up their customer base. One of the primary aspirations of LURN’s campaign is to build an inclusive food cycle, so that everyone in the community not only has access to healthy food, but also reaps the financial benefits of that newfound demand.

Whether the problem is truly supply or demand, so far, it’s been extremely hard to succeed in the food industry in a way that supports health needs of low-income Americans. The programs and businesses we profiled only scratch the surface, and new healthy retail programs, nutrition education programs, and nonprofits that champion equal access to nutritious food  form each year. The next phase will be integrating supply-side solutions with much more outreach to spur demand, aimed at ensuring that once people easily find fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables, there’s no reason to waste them.