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"Food deserts" and nutrition: a Q&A with USDA's Roger Beachy

(Art Chimes)
The Old North St. Louis Grocery Co-op brings fresh, local produce to an underserved neighborhood of the city. (Art Chimes)


“Food deserts” – places without access to fresh produce and other healthy foods – continue to be a problem throughout the U.S.

Here in St. Louis, the Old North Grocery Co-op opened last summer, in an effort to increase healthy food options in an underserved part of the city. It’s the first co-op in Missouri to serve a predominantly low-income neighborhood.

The director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Roger Beachy was in St. Louis recently visiting the Old North co-op and discussing the issue of nutrition.

Food deserts are common

“Food deserts themselves are really quite common,” Beachy said. When an individual is more than a mile or two away from a place where they can acquire fresh fruits and vegetables, and have a decent selection, Beachy explains, the government considers them to be disadvantaged. “And in fact they are,” Beachy said.

Beachy says many communities don’t have public transportation, and without it, people are stuck with whatever food is available in walking distance – usually, a less healthy selection than most parents would like for their children.

According to Beachy, food deserts can be in both urban and rural areas. “In urban areas such as here in North St. Louis, we’re disadvantaged,” Beachy said. “Food store chains don’t usually invest in areas where they aren’t assured of a certain amount of foot traffic and automobile traffic that would bring individuals to their doors.”

Beachy says having access to local grocery stores is even more critical in rural areas, because the distances between commercial centers are greater.

The economy may be hurting nutrition

Beachy says the current economic downturn may be having an impact on nutrition. “The importance of fruits and vegetables in diet began to be discussed four or five, or perhaps ten years ago. And we gradually saw an increase in purchasing of those fruits and vegetables,” Beachy said.

But, Beachy adds, recently there’s been a decline in amount of fresh fruits and vegetables being purchased. “Which was really surprising given the increased visibility in the media of having [fresh produce] in our diet,” Beach said. “And one would imagine that might be caused by economic impacts.”

Or, Beachy says, it could be that Americans just want to eat what tastes good, even if they know it’s not healthy for them. He says we’re also hooked on convenience.

Improving nutrition takes access, education

On the other hand, said Beachy, he recently spoke with an extension agent at Lincoln University who had been working with African American communities in southeastern Missouri to reduce obesity and encourage people to change their diets to include more fresh fruits and vegetables. “And she said they have seen remarkable changes in the last year, with just education and availability,” Beachy said. “So, it’s not a difficult thing to do. It’s education and availability.”

USDA promotes urban farming

Beachy says the USDA has a number of programs to try to improve nutrition, including community food service programs that provide funding and education related to nutrition.

The USDA also encourages the development of urban farming. “We have a need,” Beachy stressed. “We have a need in our schools for fresh vegetables, and [they] can be produced by our own hands.” Beachy says urban farming goes beyond community gardens. “It’s food and agriculture, and it’s an economy. And it’s a way to revitalize areas of cities of communities.”

Beachy believes there are opportunities to create urban economic landscapes through agriculture in North St. Louis. He says there is a market, a need, and a workforce that could be trained to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by urban agriculture. “And there’s a community that wants fresh vegetables just as we have in other parts of this city,” said Beachy, “so let’s find ways to provide it.”


You can find out more about the Old North Grocery Co-op here.

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