Sustainability Superheroes Rescuing Food Deserts
By Emily Powell
Thousands of people across our world’s cities don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This means, in one sense or another, that they live too far from an affordable grocery store and must turn to low-end outlets for quick food purchases. In a world of globalized transportation and agriculture, where you can buy any fruit at any month regardless of nature’s original seasons, children and adults who live in the poorest or most desolate parts of our urban environments continually suffer from micronutrient deficits and overnutrition of saturated fats and sugars because of a lack of access and ability to afford the fresh, minimally-processed foods that our body should consume. How is this possible? How did the distribution of grocery stores and affordable produce become so alarmingly stratified? And how can we fix it?
Many argue that a solution to this issue is to teach people how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. This would eliminate any dependence on convenience marts and other low-end sources of processed and low-quality food, creating instead a self-sufficient and sustainable source of sustenance for the families who are willing and able to rely on the technical skills of gardening. This is a marvelous and idealistic goal. However, even with the technical skills of how to correctly irrigate, fertilize, tend, and harvest a garden, many of the poorest families, whose parents are working exceedingly ridiculous hours on low-paying jobs, would not be gardening for the same reason that I, an ecologically-minded and fervently nutrition-savvy college student, do not garden. It takes too much time, it takes too much money, and it’s much too victimized by the whims of the weather.
Imagine this scenario: a mother returns from her double shift as a crew member at Burger King, which earns her barely enough money to buy a QuikTrip dinner for the family but does NOT earn her the resources (such as gas money, energy, and time) to get to the grocery store and buy ingredients for a home-made, significantly healthier dinner. As important of a tradition home-cooking may be, passed down from generation to generation, and as much as that young mother may enjoy cooking a meal for the family, it’s not going to happen. Would this same mother be likely to invest the time and money in a backyard garden, which may yield unreliable amounts of produce every few weeks and which may or may not be enough to sustain her family on a regular basis? Probably not. In a very realistic way, the problem of food deserts is not the lack of tangible, technical, food-growing skills. Part of the problem is the lack of education and experience that magnifies a parent’s resume, elevates them from the bottom-tier wage-earning positions that offer barely enough to feed a family, and increases the availability of monetary and temporal resources to encourage more investment in healthy, wholesome living.
This is not to discount the power of gardens as instruments of magnificent positive social change and ecological understanding in poor neighborhoods. In forming the connection between farm and fork, in establishing baseline dietary understandings of the benefits of healthy food, in providing responsibilities and technical skills that can be passed on through relationships of leadership, in triggering a shift from the highly industrialized international food system to locally-grown, minimally processed foods, gardens are instrumental and impressive. But in the world of modern financial and time demands, such as extended work schedules, expenses of technology and transportation, asking for a complete replacement of the need for grocery stores in food deserts with a home garden is simply unrealistic. As a people who are deeply invested in living locally and living sustainably, it is our next step to expand this sustainability to our community in viable ways. It is the strategic and careful approaches that can preserve the life of our city and its people.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietitian credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.