Growing fresh and healthy food is a founding value for the French. I grew up in a small town in the western region of France, and as a child, avoided eating processed foods until I moved to Paris at the age of 15. Even then, a healthy diet remained a part of my daily life. Paris today has 82 farmers’ markets and 3 organic farmers’ markets that run 2 to 3 days a week, all year round. The city also boasts around 675 large grocery stores.
So imagine my surprise when I first moved to the U.S. and learned that not everyone had equal access to healthy food. Neighborhood pockets in cities like New York seemed to offer little options for fresh and affordable food. (How’s this for a contrast: there are approximately 450 Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Manhattan alone; I could only imagine the impact each store might have should they carry pâté, cheese and other savory French delights instead!).
CBX’s recent project for the hunger relief organization Philabundance—to design a prototype for Fare & Square, a not-for-profit grocery store in PA—has made me think about these inequities even more. In our work for Philabundance, I’ve also been introduced to phrases like “food deserts”—urban areas with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable food choices necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. According to American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the highest rates of obesity exist in areas that lack large supermarkets, while the lowest rates exist among residents who live close to (and thus have access to) these supermarkets. As filmmaker Byron Hurt recently observed in the award-winning documentary “Soul Food Junkies,” this disparity in access is tantamount to a “21st century genocide”.
But the good news is, trends are slowly shifting with a variety of new initiatives that aim to rebuild local food systems across the country.
Recent initiatives here in New York City include:
– FRESH, a city program that offers financial incentives to operators or developers who choose to open new grocery stores or help existing ones in neighborhoods that lack healthy food stores.
– The Healthy Bodega Initiative, created jointly by the Department of Health and the Healthy Corner Stores Network, which educates local storeowners on the importance and benefits of selling fresh produce.
– The GreenThumb initiative, in which the Department of Parks & Recreation assists in the development of community gardens throughout the city (today, GreenThumb oversees over 500 gardens, from schoolyard gardens to community gardens, and remains the largest urban gardening program in the nation).
– The NYC Green Cart Initiative, another initiative from the Department of Health, which helps bring fresh fruits to underserved communities.
National food initiatives include:
– Community Food Projects, a federal domestic assistance program that offers one-time grants to nonprofit organizations that aim to develop local solutions to food access in under-resourced areas (grant awards can total $250,000.)
– Food Desert Oasis Act (pending). The bill identifies food desert zones nationwide and encourages individuals to open businesses in those areas; qualified businesses, in turn, become eligible for various benefits from the federal government.
Creating awareness is ultimately the first step. The more people understand the issues and the consequences, the more progress can be made. First Lady Michelle Obama said it best in her address for the launch of the Let’s Move! campaign last fall:
“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation… is at stake. This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved overnight, but with everyone working together, it can be solved. So, LET’S MOVE.”