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Food Justice: Three Million New Yorkers Live in a Food Desert. Do You?

If you’ve never heard the term food justice, let me ask you a few quick questions.

Is it easier to find potato chips than real potatoes in your neighborhood? Cheaper to buy chow mein than chard? Closer to walk to KFC than to a store that sells fresh chicken?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you probably live in a food desert.

What’s worse: if statistics prove correct, that probably means you’re low-income, an immigrant, or a person of color.

A food desert is defined by the 2008 Farm Bill as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.”

And if you live in one, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re one of the three million New Yorkers—over a third of the population—and nearly 24 million Americans who live in food deserts.

Couple that with the fact that access and proximity to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods are among the leading factors determining your likelihood of suffering from obesity, diabetes, or other diet-related illnesses, and you’ll quickly understand what food and justice could possibly have to do with each other, and why food deserts are a serious problem.

The issue of food deserts and inequality in New York City really came to light in 2008, when the Department of City Planning issued a report concisely named “New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage.”

The report features shocking maps that lay out the areas of the city that have the least access to grocery stores, the areas where the residents eat few to no servings of fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, and the prevalence of diet-related diseases in each neighborhood.

Unsurprisingly, the maps are nearly identical to one another.

But even more frightening is the overlap between those maps and the ones I posted last week in my article about the ethnic landscape of the city.

Indeed, the neighborhoods highlighted in the report on grocery store and supermarket shortage—the Bronx, central and eastern Brooklyn, far eastern Queens, and Harlem—also mostly happen to be those with the greatest concentrations of people of color.

Since 2008 some efforts have been made to improve this through programs like Green Carts—a city government initiative to inject mobile, quick-fix oases of fresh food into desert neighborhoods. Nationally, Michelle Obama also has taken on the cause, convincing major food retailers to open or expand 1,500 stores in areas without easy access to fresh, healthy foods over the next five years.

But up in the Bronx, residents tired of waiting are taking things into their own hands.

On Saturday afternoon, the Lab played host to an amazing feast of culinary brilliance in an effort to bring light to the issue of food access in New York.

The event, organized by Tanya Fields, a food-access activist and entrepreneur from the Bronx and executive director of the BLK ProjeK, brought together chefs from around the city who focus on using organic, local, and sustainable ingredients, or focus on providing jobs in the sustainable-food industry to women and people of color.

The food was incredible, but the company was even better.

Fields is a single mother living in the Bronx who has seen the impact of food deserts in her own backyard, and she has made it her mission to see local residents of underserved neighborhoods empowered to bring healthy, fresh, and local food into their communities.

Her work is an amazing example of local residents seeing a very real local problem and finding a real and sustainable local solution.

Listen to her inspiring story and see some highlights from Bronx Grub Takes Manhattan in the video above.

And tell us: Do you know of any other great initiatives, like the BLK ProjeK, dealing with issues of food access in New York or elsewhere?

  • Anonymous

    Here are a couple of the great, thoughtful responses to this post from the BMW Guggenheim Lab Facebook page:

    Kari Harendorf: Food deserts aren’t just a problem in devastated poor urban areas like Chicago, L.A., and Flint, Michigan. When I went to Fort Myers, Florida, there was a Publix just 3 minutes away if you live in a wealthy part of
    town. However if you live in Dunbar, Suncoast, Tice, or Pine Manor
    which are all poor communities, are examples of food deserts. The slurpee machine at 7-11 is not food!

    Paulette Graf: And East New York, parts of Bushwick, parts of Harlem, some parts of the Bronx…. as well, but inroads are being made. We are working on it.

    Miguel Antonio: Vizuete Pistas inteligentes. Desperdicios auto reciclables.

    Greg Barila: I read about Wendell Pierce’s plans to tackle this problem in New Orleans.