Community garden next to Harmon Library in Phoenix. Photo by Kendal Drake, Phoenix Revitalization Corporation.
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by Allie Nicodemo
April 02, 2012
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Cultivating the food desert

While candy bars for breakfast and potato chips for lunch may sound great to a five-year-old, parents know that kind of diet won’t meet a person’s nutritional needs. But for families living in parts of South Central Phoenix, these foods may be more readily available than fresh vegetables and whole grains. That’s because certain low-income communities are “food deserts,” meaning most residents do not have access to a grocery store or supermarket.

Living in a food desert makes it tough to prepare nutritious meals. The local corner store might stock some fresh produce, but it is often more expensive than it would be at the supermarket. And instead of lean meats like chicken breast, convenience stores sell Spam and beef jerky. Because people with low incomes are less likely to own cars, shopping in neighborhoods with a better food selection may not be a viable option.

“As far as food deserts in South Phoenix, what they do have access to is a lot of convenience markets, essentially. They are predominately selling junk food and alcohol,” says Tommy Bleasdale, a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Social Sciences Program at ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC).

“If you don’t have an easy way to get to a supermarket, and these neighborhoods don’t because the supermarkets around them have either moved or gone out of business, then you don’t have equal access to the quality of food that somebody living in another neighborhood might,” Bleasdale says.

Bleasdale worked with Carolyn Crouch, who graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the School of Sustainability, and Sharon Harlan, a sociologist in SHESC, to understand the complex issues that disadvantaged neighborhoods face in trying to access healthy food. Specifically, the team studied the community of Central City South (CCS), located in the urban core of Phoenix.

For her part of the project, Crouch collected data from each of the community’s 14 food outlets to determine the nutrition environment in the area. There is no grocery store within one mile of CCS, so these food outlets included convenience stores, ethnic food marts and dollar stores. Crouch gave each neighborhood of CCS a rating based on availability, affordability and quality of food.

Crouch found that Central City South, like many other low-income areas of the U.S., had low food access, especially in regard to healthy options. A week after these findings were published, the USDA released its own survey confirming that the area of CCS is a food desert.

Bleasdale is interested in how these communities respond to having low access to healthy food. In the past, community gardens have been one way for residents to get more fruits and vegetables.

“That’s something that people can do—they can afford the produce because they’re growing it themselves. It’s kind of a ground-up strategy,” he says.

The nonprofit organization Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC) runs a community gardening program and wants to expand into more neighborhoods. In order to help PRC revise its program and better meet the needs of the community, Bleasdale surveyed 149 residents on the perceived benefits and burdens of gardening. The study was published in the May 2011 Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development.

While the majority of respondents said they were interested in community gardening, 82 percent were unaware of existing gardens in Central City South, including one located in the HOPE IV public housing project and another next to the Harmon Library. However, they saw potential benefits in community gardening, mainly that it would provide them with more nutritious food. Other benefits included exercise, helping the environment and relaxation.

Respondents also acknowledged the burdens that might come along with gardening. Most people identified lack of space and excessive heat as two major obstacles. Lack of time was also a concern.

“A lot of these people have multiple jobs and the only way they can pull through is working 60, 70 hours a week, so time was a huge issue,” Bleasdale says.

Now that the PRC has a better understanding of the community’s perceptions of gardening, they can tailor the program and make it more feasible for residents to participate. For example, most people surveyed had no knowledge of the existing local food movement in their neighborhood. To increase participation, Bleasdale suggests the use of colorful signs to advertise gardens and a community bulletin board to promote communication and social interaction. Additionally, providing education on gardening methods will allow residents with little or no experience to participate.

Working with a local organization called the Valley Christian Center, the PRC has received funding to build a new half-acre garden, which will be constructed next to the PRC building in the Matthew Henson neighborhood of CCS. Bleasdale says that’s one reason why it’s important to do this kind of research.

“By publishing work like this, it gives the non-profit leverage in writing grants. Also, by showing what this particular community wanted, we can then start to discuss other food desert communities surrounding it.”

Want to find out if your neighborhood is a food desert? Use the USDA food desert locater: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FoodDesert/

Banner image: Community garden next to Harmon Library in Phoenix. Photo by Kendal Drake, Phoenix Revitalization Corporation.