Providing an Oasis in a Food Desert

Activist Tanya Fields' innovative mobile market will bring healthy foods to the South Bronx.

Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek with the bus that will bring healthy food to the South Bronx (
Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek with the bus that will bring healthy food to the South Bronx (

(The Root) — Tanya Fields is a single mother of four. So in 2006, when she found an affordable apartment in New York City’s South Bronx, she moved there, only to discover the real bargain she had made. In the South Bronx, a full-service grocery store is hard to find, and obesity is common.

Today Fields is the director of her own nonprofit, the BLK Projek. She is also on the verge of launching what some experts who study the problems of neighborhoods where fresh, healthy food remains scarce think may be a solution applicable in other communities. In September, the BLK Projek will start selling healthy food options out of what Fields likes to call a “funky-fresh, environmentally friendly bus with dope artwork and real options the community controls.”

Fields isn’t, by far, the first person to cook up a mobile-market idea or make it happen. But as a nonprofit veteran and black woman with limited income trying to raise a healthy family, Fields is fast emerging as an authoritative voice and activist to watch in the national battle to eliminate food deserts.

“Food is where social justice and environmental justice meet,” said Fields. “It’s been really refreshing to realize that today, there are other people who see that, too. “

About 2.1 million low-income Americans, or nearly 2 percent of the population, live in areas with limited access to fresh food and do not have a car, according to the most recent federal data available. But a whopping 52.5 million low-income Americans live in communities that sit as far as 10 miles from a full-service grocery store.

Still, Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist at the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is part of a growing body of researchers who draw sharp distinctions between phenomena that may seem closely connected — living in a food desert and becoming obese — and the conclusion that one causes the other. The data are not conclusive, said Ver Ploeg.

Mari Gallagher, a former federal researcher who in 2006 founded the Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, takes issue with the federal government’s methods and insists that the relationship between life in a food desert and any number of diet-related diseases is clear.

In 2006, Chicago tapped Gallagher’s firm to examine communities in that city where healthy food options were expensive and scarce and what could be done to change the situation.

Gallagher, who has been widely credited with popularizing the term “food deserts,” and her team looked at every block in the city and those within a three-mile radius of town. They found that residents of food deserts were more likely to die prematurely from diet-related diseases such as diabetes and have a higher body-mass index. Food deserts were most common in predominantly black and Latino communities and weren’t always limited to low-income neighborhoods. Subsequent studies in other cities, including Detroit (pdf), Cincinnati (pdf) and Washington, D.C. (pdf), found a similar pattern.

“The truth is that people generally access the food that is closest to them,” said Gallagher. “They may aim for health next week, or in the future. For right now they think, ‘I need to get something to eat, something fast, something right now.’ So that often means what is close by.”

The reasons that full-service grocery stores exist only in specific spots are varied and complex. Compiling a tract of land on which a large supermarket can be built is often more expensive inside a city than simply buying a large cornfield in the suburbs, Gallagher said. City zoning and building-permit processes often complicate the work of trying to build a store inside an established city neighborhood and make it more expensive. And each grocery-store chain has its own criteria — some combination of available skilled labor, neighborhood population, income and average food spending, theft rates and insurance costs — that it uses to determine where to put up its stores, she said.