A Dry Eat

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Valley News Issue: August 2014
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Community leaders create oases of nutrition across the “food deserts” of Phoenix.

South Phoenix resident Chris Child, 35, eyes a gallon jug warily, silently calculating the risks of transporting it home. He passes over the milk, meat and veggies and loads up on pop-top canned goods. In the 18 months the Montana transplant lived in the Valley without a car, he was rarely able to purchase fresh produce or even a frozen meal. “I had to be especially concerned about dairy products,” he says. “And if I was walking, I could only buy what fit in a backpack.”

Child lives in an area the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers an urban “food desert,” defined as a low-income region where residents must travel half a mile or more to buy groceries. More than 50 such areas have been identified in Maricopa County alone, with nearly 13 percent of the population having limited access to the essentials necessary for a healthful diet. In response, Valley activists are firing up a fleet of mobile markets to help deliver perishables to people in need.

Dr. Christopher Wharton has studied food deserts in his role as Senior Sustainability Scientist and associate professor of Arizona State University’s Nutrition Program. “It doesn’t necessarily mean food is not available at all,” he says. “Often, these areas are marked by a lack of larger food stores that offer healthier foods at lower costs, and instead are more often populated by corner stores, convenience stores and fast food restaurants.” In other words, residents opt for pink slime and heavily processed foods because they’re cheap and readily available.

While a mile might not seem far to those of us with comfortable air-conditioned cars, a single trip to the store can become a logistical nightmare for locals lacking reliable transportation. For example, a bus trip to the nearest supermarket took Child one to two hours (and that’s assuming he managed to perfectly time his exit with the Valley Metro schedule). “Sometimes I could get more foods if I went late in the evening when it was cooler. But the bus didn’t run as often,” Child recalls. As of 2010, members of at least 11,000 Valley households were forced to rely on mass transit or walk to the grocery. Approximately 50 percent of Maricopa County’s population lives in a food desert.

To put those numbers into perspective: In 2010, the USDA identified only eight food deserts in Tucson despite its higher-than-average poverty level. Los Angeles has a handful of tracts at the Food Access Research Atlas’ original measure of a mile-plus walk for groceries, and Manhattan is food-desert-free. “We see the phenomenon everywhere, but it is particularly bad in the Phoenix area,” Dr. Wharton notes. “It’s a problem because Arizona suffers from some of the worst rates of poverty and food insecurity in the country.” Arizona possesses the sixth-highest poverty level in the nation, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, with approximately one in five households struggling to afford food.

Local community leaders are taking these statistics to heart. Nonprofit volunteer organization Tempe Leadership Class XXIX recently purchased two refrigerated “Fresh Trucks” that will aid United Food Bank, The Salvation Army and other charities in delivering perishables to Arizonans in need. “We realized there is a lack of direct access to fresh produce,” class chairman Daniel Milner says. “The agencies that distribute food often don’t have a way to store or transport refrigerated products.” Milner and his classmates raised $60,000 in three months, with a $30,000 Wal-Mart grant and an additional $31,00o from the Ford Motor Company, to purchase and outfit a Ford Transit Connect and a GMC delivery truck.

United Food Bank plans to collect data on the trucks’ use over a two-year period. If statistics show a decrease in food insecurity, the Fresh Truck program will likely expand and garner additional grants. “This is just the beginning,” Milner says.

Tempe Leadership isn’t the only Valley organization addressing food insecurity. Discovery Triangle Development Corporation’s Fresh Express program turned select Valley Metro buses into supermarkets on wheels. These rolling markets offer affordably priced fresh fruits and vegetables in the Discovery Triangle food desert (which includes Childs’ Papago Park apartment). A similar program is currently being tested by Kitchen on the Street, a local nonprofit founded in 2006 by Valley residents Vince and Lisa Scarpinato.

“We don’t always see the problem because these people may not look like they’re starving. They’re existing on junk food because that’s the closest thing available,” Scarpinato says. He recently initiated a Kitchen on the Street pilot program in a west Phoenix food desert, transporting rescued produce from local markets via a cold truck donated by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Area residents can purchase a box of fresh produce for $2-$3 directly from the truck.

Scarpinato’s hope is that providing access to affordable produce will increase the health and food stability of the region’s inhabitants. “We measure our success by how many less customers we have,” he quips. Some relocate out of the food desert, while others like Child save money to purchase a vehicle. Now that he has a truck, Child is grateful to be able to purchase staples such as milk and lean meats.

Though rezoning measures and new supermarket construction could help shrink Phoenix’s food deserts, these measures alone may not be enough to solve the problem. “Policies can always be improved to support healthier food access,” Wharton says, “but we need smart solutions – [like] the variety of new food distribution programs people are inventing.”

Web Extra!
Do you live in a Phoenix food desert? Consult this online map: bucktruck.org/phx-food-deserts