Navigating a Food Desert

Mar 15th

I found myself standing in line at the local supermarket last night. As I impatiently waited, I caught myself reading the labels on the food that belonged to the guy in front of me. Nope I silently said to myself that’s not food. Looking at the other items on the checker stand I suddenly realized none of the food the guy picked was real food. Well, maybe that package of ground beef? Besides that questionable beef though, the guy filled his cart with “chicken” flavored crackers, corn chips, american cheese, 2% pasteurized/ homogenized milk, a box of muffins and soda pop. Not one vegetable or fruit accompanied the mix. My heart sank. Is this what we think is food?

It had been a while since I last stepped foot in a modern supermarket (I loathe using the word conventional as there’s nothing conventional about supermarkets. They’ve only become an intrinsic part of Americana in the last 75 years or so). I found myself there after realizing half way through cooking that I’d forgot the rice vinegar during my weekly shopping trip – necessary for making the sushi rice for my “un” sushi bowl. Darnit I thought to myself, as I begrudgingly put on my boots, tossed my dog in the car and convinced my husband to drive me (memories of my afternoon commute were still raw). Up until this moment I had a pretty good track record of food planning, so I was a little disappointed in myself.

When we approached the glow of the store front I was confronted with the sight of three adorable girls selling those notorious cookies – right next to a sign encouraging shoppers to sign up for cooking classes for managing diabetes. Does no one else see the irony?

I stealthily maneuvered around the girls without being noticed. As much as I’d love to educate the girls on the GMO’s and crazy amounts of sugar in the cookies they were peddling, I know when to pick my battles. Berating cute little girls in scout uniforms is not going to win me brownie points with the universe. After I snuck past the “guards” I quickly dove into the condiments aisle before emerging with my target and made a bee-line for the check-stand. Which led me to standing in line, peeking at the food items my fellow shoppers had selected.

Why am I telling you this? Why all the fuss? Isn’t Seattle an organic food mecca? Ironically, just a wee 20 miles south of Seattle proper you land smack dab in a food desert. You’d think living in such close proximity to Seattle would guarantee access to good, fresh food. But that’s not the case. And while we have some major employers here in the south end, a massive mall, plenty of fast food joints and a good dose of entertainment places, we don’t have any natural food markets (other than a tiny market that sales mostly supplements).

The same story goes for many of you reading this. In fact about 23.5 people live in Food Deserts in the United States1. These numbers are irrespective of access to fresh, organic food. Imagine if it did? And while organic continues to grow in popularity, posting an impressive 11% growth in 20152, it’s not fast enough. We need organic, clean, nutritious food now. We shouldn’t have to approach sourcing our food like we would hunting for berries and tubers in the forest.

So what can you do now to ensure the best food and health for your family? While I don’t recommend resorting to foraging in the forest to find a few fresh huckleberries (unless, of course, you want to), I do have some tactics that I’ve refined over the years that has helped me provide good, clean, organic food for my family without busting our budget.

     1) Shop in season. In season food not only tastes divine, but it costs less too. the Co-Op I shop at publishes what produce is in-season at any given time. While I occasionally succumb to an out of season tomato, I do my best to enjoy’s nature bounty – whatever it may be – when it’s in season. During peak harvest season, I often buy in bulk at farmers markets. Many farmers are more than happy to offer a bulk-discount in exchange for you taking 5 or 10 lbs of tomatoes, zucchini or other produce – especially towards the close of the market when they may have a surplus they’d rather sell than cart back to the farm. Which leads to my next tactic…

     2) Shop at local fruit stands or farmers markets whenever possible. While farmers market season isn’t year round here, I revel when it is open. Not only can you find fresh-from-the-field goodies, you can also find artisan cheeses, handmade kombucha, grass-fed beef and more. Prices can vary dramatically I’ve found, so I spend the time early in the season to find the vendors that sell organic fruits and veggies at reasonable prices (hint: I often compare prices to the co-op as a baseline. That said, do know you’re co-op is getting bulk pricing. So if it’s roughly the same or just a little more, I’ll always opt with the farmer direct).

     3) Make a weekly meal plan. If you know what you are making throughout the week, you know what you’ll need to buy. In a fascinating 2012 Paper by the National Resources Defense Council, they explain just how bad the problem of food waste is. According to the paper, on average Americans throw out 25% of the food they bring home, costing an estimated $1,365 to $2,275 for a family of 4 annually3.  Meal planning helps eliminate the waste. And with those savings, why not invest in replacing conventional produce with organic?

     4) Make a list. This may seem like it falls under tactic no. 3. But it deserves to stand alone. Making a list works in two ways. It ensures you buy only the food you need and it helps avoid unplanned trips to the store. I keep a list on my fridge with a pen attached. That way there’s no excuse. Out of butter? Put it on the list. Grabbed the last jar of tomato puree? Put it on the list. Once your family makes this a habit you’ll be amazed at how much money you can save by avoiding unplanned purchases as well as the calmness you’ll feel knowing you don’t have to frantically put together a shopping list an hour before you go to the store!

     5) Grow your own food. Not matter the size of your yard – or even if you simply have a little balcony. Grow something! Nothing connects you to your food like growing it yourself. There is such a simple pleasure derived out of cooking with home-grown ingredients that beats any fine dining experience. If you are new to gardening, start with easy to grow staples. Herbs are particularly resilient, as is kale, spinach and collards. Peas are also a delight to grow, and can be grown in tight spaces using a trellis. A little more adventurous? Try growing container tomatoes, blueberries and specialty greens. If you are lucky enough to have some space for a garden, then start off with those mentioned above, but consider adding onions, beets, garlic, peppers and more. When choosing what to grow, consider not only what plants are appropriate for your skill level, but what produce is the most pricey. While I do have a garden, space is a constraint. Because of that, I don’t grow carrots or celery. I could grow them. But both are relatively inexpensive compared to tomatoes, peppers, speciality onions and beets, so I purposely omit them in favor of pricier produce. Already a garden guru? Consider adding chickens or bees!

Using these 5 tactics, I’m able to successfully navigate through my food desert. And the benefits go beyond surviving a food desert. Today, I’m able to keep my shopping trips down to just once a week, focus on healthy, organic foods, save money and make sure my family has satisfying daily meals (well, most of the time anyways).

Do you have other tactics you use for navigating a food desert? If so, please share!

 


References:
  1.  Facts About Food Deserts. DoSomething.org. https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-food-deserts
  2. U.S. organic sales post new record of $43.3 billion in 2015. Organic Trade Association. https://www.ota.com/news/press-releases/19031
  3. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. National Resources Defense Council. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.

Photo Credit: Desert. James Byrum. Licensed under creative commons license 2.0