Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tempe's Food Desert

There is a hot new term that is being used for those of us interested in food, culture, and cities. This term is "food deserts." It has become so common that there is now a Food Desert Awareness Month. Food deserts are defined as areas in the country where there is a shortage in healthy and affordable food sources such as grocery stores and supermarkets. Below is a dramatized and somewhat hilarious depiction of a food desert.
In reality, food deserts are much harder to identify. The first studies to discover this issue researched neighborhoods where families had to do their grocery shopping at a gas station or corner store where they could only buy highly processed or preserved food. Because of this lack of healthy food , these families are more likely to have nutritional issues such as diabetes or hypertension.

In the last year, the USDA has acknowledged the importance of food deserts and has started multiple programs to improve food access in low income areas. In order to properly target food deserts, the USDA has created a definition for a food desert. Beware, government jargon incoming:
"Food deserts" are defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as low-income and low-access census tracts:
  • To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income;
  • To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
So basically, food deserts are defined as having a shortage of local food options and also lacking the money to drive to farther food resources (gas is expensive).

This all sounds simple enough, so I decided to look up Tempe. Interestingly, there is only one food desert in Tempe and the garden is in the dead center of it.

My apologies about the poor map quality. The desert covers everything inside McClintock, University, Apache, and the canal border with Mesa. The red dot is the garden.

Now, I'm not going to object to any government money that the USDA wants to throw at us, but I feel that the Escalante neighborhood actually has quite a few food resources. Additionally, our neighborhood has the advantage of multiple bus lines, the free Mercury Orbit line, and also the light rail line. So even if you don't own a car, traveling a mile or two to larger grocery stores won't set you back more than a few dollars.

I do not want to argue that there are not food security and health issues in our neighborhood, but I do want to argue that the USDA overlooked some very important "food oasis" in Tempe's food desert:

Haji-Baba International Food
I'm not sure how the USDA missed this place. Located on the south side of Escalante Neighborhood, Haji-Baba is a warehouse of food primarily for nearby restaurants, but the front also acts as a large grocery store. Although this store does not currently have a full produce aisle, I have do doubt that a family could use this store as their primary grocery store.

El Pueblo Meat MarketRight down Apache Dr. from Haji-Baba is El Pueblo. This tiny market is a modern throwback to the all purpose country stores that used to be the backbone of rural areas. Along with having a little of everything, El Pueblo also has a (very) small but relatively diverse and affordable produce section. It's not huge, but the store owners are doing their best with a building about the size of a Wal-Mart checkout aisle.

Bill's Market
Bill's is one of the oldest businesses in the area and has been used by locals for longer than I've been alive. The store has a reasonable selection and is good for anyone in the neighborhood who forgot one or two ingredients. Also, although the USDA would not define it as healthy, the chorizo at Bill's is amazing. The chorizo alone makes Bill's worth visiting.

The India Plaza
Although not exactly inside Escalante Neighborhood, the India Plaza is still right in the middle of food desert. Equipped with a fairly large produce section, the India Plaza is definitely a potential place to get groceries.
It seems that the USDA missed these small, independently run food sources in their census. In defense of the USDA, running a survey of food resources for the whole country is a difficult task and each of these businesses could not feed the neighborhood alone. However, it seems unfair to label a neighborhood serviced by many small independently run businesses as a "food desert." Especially when the alternative is a single large corporate run supermarket that everyone will have to drive to.

1 comment:

  1. I think you missed the point and of what exactly qualifies as "food produce"

    ReplyDelete