Shopping cart in desertPhoto: Mark Kjerland & super.heavy via flickrTalk with healthy-food advocates in urban centers across the country, and frequently, you’ll hear the same story. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time, this city was full of grocery stores. Then came urban renewal/an economic downturn/a mass exodus of the wealthy and, one by one, the groceries closed up and moved to the outskirts of the city. Since then, there have been Safeways/Krogers/Publix that have set up shop here and there, but they all end up leaving. Now we have 100 liquor stores for 25,000 people in this part of town, and the closest these stores come to selling fruit is the Arbor Mists in the drink cooler.

Thus, the United States has ended up with so-called “food deserts,” low-income enclaves that lack easy access to grocery stores selling healthy food and fresh produce.

It’s not only the biggest cities that have lost their grocery stores. While it’s hard to find a good grocer in parts of Atlanta and New York City, fresh veggies can be equally difficult to come by in places like Durham, N.C.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Nashville, Tenn. 

According to Miriam Liebovitz of Community Food Advocates, a Nashville organization working to increase access to healthy food, carless residents of South Nashville must frequently take multiple buses and spend hours in transit to the nearest supermarket. “We’re working on getting policy incentives, tax and building incentives, to try and get grocery stores into Nashville neighborhoods,” she says.

Marketing justice

The work done by organizations like Community Food Advocates falls under the phrase du jour “food justice,” a term that’s all about equity, says Oran Hesterman, an agronomist and food systems expert who now heads up Detroit’s Fair Food Network. Those working for food justice believe people should have equitable access to healthy food, equitable opportunities to produce such food, and equitable chances to find living-wage jobs in the food and agriculture system.

Hesterman, like others in the food-justice field, see problems like skyrocketing obesity rates and diabetes as symptoms of a broken food system in need of extensive rebuilding. Their research shows that “the symptoms of that broken system show up in our low-income communities quicker and more harshly,” he says.

Alison Alkon, a sociologist at California’s University of the Pacific who studies the food-justice movement, likens it to the fight for environmental justice that sprung to life in the 1970s, when low-income communities and communities of color realized they were being hit with a double environmental whammy — extra exposure to toxic operations on the one side, and lower access to environmental amenities like parks and clean air on the other.

These residents also say they want what most people already have easy access to — a full-service grocery store in their neighborhood that would offer a wide range of products for one-stop shopping.

But like environmental justice issues, the causes and impacts of lack of access to food frequently have multiple historic causes, ranging from structural racism to poor urban planning.  

“Planners did not actively try to make neighborhoods underserved … but by certain planning decisions, the end result was the same,” says Samina Raja, a planner at the University at Buffalo.

Due to a push from activists and local communities, planners are starting to include food access in how they manage city planning, but there’s a ways to go, says Raja. “Not having paid attention to food for several decades, we’re in a pretty dire situation in terms of disparities and justice.”

As the country’s obesity epidemic looms large and Michelle Obama continues to push healthy food initiatives, numerous cities have started to think about how lack of access to healthy food can affect the health of their residents, and thus reduce the amount of money they spend on healthcare for diet-related problems.

“Ultimately, it’s the best preventative medicine we have — eating healthy,” suggests Hesterman, pointing to efforts like Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provides incentives for grocery stores to open in underserved, low-income areas, as a model cities around the country are looking to follow.

Declaration of independents

Building grocery stores in an underserved area is one concrete step toward making access to food more equitable, but it’s neither a simple task nor a straightforward solution.

As with many young social movements, there is tension between what the activists — who often come from outside the impacted communities — seek, and what those experiencing the problem view as the cure.

Activists often push to create (frequently small) independent grocery stores, cooperatively- and community-owned, or to get fresh produce in existing corner stores through programs such as Healthy in a Hurry in Louisville, Ky., and the Healthy Bodegas Initiative in New York City.

Research and focus groups completed by Hesterman’s Fair Food Network, the Oakland research group PolicyLink, and academics like sociologist Alkon, however, show that many residents of low-income neighborhoods do not yet use the alternative venues offered by food justice groups. These residents also say they want what most people already have easy access to — a full-service grocery store in their neighborhood that would offer a wide range of products for one-stop shopping.

West Oakland, Calif., is one of the few communities to have successfully created a small-scale cooperative grocery stores. Thus far, it’s received a positive response from the community, says James Berk, one of seven worker-owners at Mandela Foods Cooperative. The marketplace, located across the street from a major public transportation hub, stocks fresh and organic produce and offers classes on cooking and nutrition.

This video from PolicyLink celebrates Mandela’s first year in operation:

As you can see, Mandela looks very different from a standard grocery store, with bulk bins selling organic beans, grains, and dry goods taking up prime real estate in the space. At 2,500 square feet, it’s about the size of a corner store, although it takes a strong stance against selling liquor.

“The closest thing that we come to alcoholic beverages is kombucha [a fermented tea],” says Berk.