Living on Madison’s east side it’s easy to take access to good food for granted. I live two blocks from Willy East, making it easy to walk or bike. I’m also just about five blocks away from Jenifer Street Market. Yes, I shop there, as I’m sure many Co-op Owners do. It seems to me that the two neighborhood stores occupy different market niches and avoid head-on competition, providing many of us with two walkable alternatives to big box stores on the outskirts of town.
Researchers have found that food choices are largely dependent on what’s immediately available. Couple that with the facts that: a) the availability of chain supermarkets in black neighborhoods was only 52% that of their white counterparts, and b) that there are five times as many fast food restaurants in neighborhoods with high minority populations than predominantly white neighborhoods, and you can see the problems that can ensue in terms of health and fitness.
The term “food desert” came from a 1999 effort to label this growing problem. Today Wikipedia defines a food desert as any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems.
The USDA defines food deserts a little differently than Wikipedia by referencing Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! initiative.
In addition, USDA’s locator maps focus on low-income neighborhoods with limited access to healthy and affordable food. Limited access in urban areas is generally defined as being more than a mile from a large grocery store, in rural areas the rule of thumb is more than 10 miles away.
A quick check on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Desert Locator (www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FoodDesert/ delineates five food deserts here in Madison. These include much of the UW-Madison campus and four census tracts along the southern edge of Madison. They vary in how many people in each area have limited good food access, with the UW-Madison campus and the Waunona Neighborhood (south of Monona Bay) having the greatest at 100%.
A few meetings ago, the Co-op Board identified food deserts as an appropriate topic for further discussion and consideration. There are a number of things the Co-op can do to address this growing issue. In some cases the Co-op’s Community Reinvestment Fund makes funding available to private non-profits working to address this problem. For instance some of the grants went to community gardens, one way to alleviate limited food access. In addition, the Board has established as one of its three initiatives the problem of food accessibility with food deserts being a key area to address. Stay tuned as we continue to work on this issue and be sure to let us know what your thoughts and ideas may be. Feel free toif you’d like to get in touch.