From the fight against urban ‘food deserts’ to the rising popularity of Community-Supported Agriculture

Today, Gilbreath features an opinion piece from Wayne Hall on community-supported agriculture and the growing awareness of a lack of fresh and healthy food items in some urban communities.

Community activism and self-reliance emerge as key factors for a healthy diet

By Wayne Hall, Gilbreath Senior Copywriter

The phrase, “eating to live” describes a way of life for a lot of health-conscious people, due partly to the known hazards of pesticide-treated farm crops and chemically-enhanced processed foods.

Meanwhile, constant news articles about high obesity levels among U.S. adults and children — and the resulting health problems — have become commonplace.

Most of us simply attribute obesity to people’s tendency to combine unhealthy diets with sedentary lifestyles. This is accurate to some extent. What’s often overlooked, however, are the harsh economic and environmental circumstances in which many adults and children become accustomed to eating unhealthy diets while getting little or no physical exercise. As part of a research magazine project for one of Gilbreath’s clients, Prairie View A&M University, I recently spoke with a professor about her research on the troubling impact of so-called “food deserts.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a food desert is a community populated primarily by low-income residents where grocery stores that sell affordable and nutritious food are few and far between.

Food deserts also happen to be among the communities most vulnerable to high levels of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and childhood obesity. Although these health problems can also be found in wealthier communities, they are particularly prevalent in areas with few genuine grocery stores and a surplus of fast food restaurants and corner stores that sell processed foods loaded with fat and sugar.

Fortunately, there’s a growing health-based activism in many urban food deserts and Dr. Jasmine Opusunju’s research involves direct interaction with people who: 1) have little or no access to fresh food; and, 2) have a strong desire to secure healthier lifestyles for themselves, their children and their communities in general.

Dr. Opusunju cites two key reasons why it’s not enough to lecture people about eating right and exercising regularly. She says various decision makers and governing bodies who spend little or no time actually engaging in urban food deserts typically make recommendations that work in theory, but are actually difficult to implement by everyday people. For example, recommendations about pursuing active outdoor living and physical activity in urban communities are much easier said than done due to safety concerns about poor lighting, lack of sidewalks, stray dogs and potential criminal activity.

At the same time, healthy cooking skills are viewed by some as difficult to learn and time-consuming. Additionally, healthy meals are often assumed to be unappealing to the human appetite. This is not true, but even after residents become aware that healthy meals can actually taste good, other discouraging factors may arise, such as cost and the travel distance necessary to purchase what is needed to cook healthy meals regularly.

Several students of Prairie View A&M University have interned with community-based organizations involved in gathering data and implementing initiatives that are identified as relevant solutions, such as the healthy corner stores — a growing trend in Houston and Harris County, Opusunju says. There is also regular interaction with store owners and customers, along with signage, various promotions, nutrition education, and on-site food demonstrations, the latter of which is most important to this comprehensive approach of creating access to healthier options through corner stores.

“At the end of the day, we’re partnering directly with businesses,” she says. “Businesses still have to make money, but as they partner in this comprehensive approach and are witnessing the transition where there’s a higher demand for healthier food options, they are more likely to stock their stores with healthier items that are high quality and affordable.”

Enter: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Meanwhile, for a growing number of people at every income level, the desire to know how and where their food is grown has become a top priority. That’s why Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is gaining notoriety and popularity in urban as well as rural communities. CSA has been around for more than 30 years, but the term is still new to many, especially to people in urban areas. CSA is simply an arrangement enabling consumers to buy local, seasonal produce directly from a farmer in or near their own community. In other words, a CSA farm is basically a farm share in which a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public.

Local consumers buy a share into the farm, supporting the latest crop with money up front for CSA membership, and in exchange, consumers receive local, fresh and seasonal produce directly from the farm each week during the growing season. Membership cost is paid in advance of the season to allow the farmer to purchase seeds, equipment or water up front, reducing the need to rely on banks or loans.

CSA farms first emerged in the 1980s as a convenient and economical way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. I first became interested in how CSA farms operate through a growing familiarity with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), another Gilbreath client. Various CSA farms throughout the state have a working relationship with the TDA and many supply the school lunch programs of several Texas school districts.

On a health-based website featuring an article entitled, Community Supported Agriculture: How to find and join a CSA, the pluses and minuses of joining a CSA are spelled out:
•    CSAs are also a great way to foster local community. On your pickup days, you get to interact with the farmer that grew the food you’ll be eating. Learning more about their business, building these relationships, and finding out more about where food comes from are all good things.

•    You have to be willing to prep food before you cook it. You’ll be receiving fresh, unprocessed food — i.e., whole carrots with the green stuff still attached. Lettuce and leeks with dirt still clinging to the roots. Do you have time to prep and cook fresh produce pretty much every night of the week? If not, you may have a lot of food go to waste.

•    Having or not having your own transportation could be the deciding factor. Do you have to pick up at the farm or is there a local drop? Most CSAs offer this – it could be a refrigerated truck in a parking lot or a booth at the farmers market. What day is the pickup? Will that work with your schedule?

•    Is it essential that your CSA be certified organic? If so, the best plan is to specifically ask the farmer about growing practices. Do they use pesticides and herbicides? What kind of fertilizers do they use? How sustainable is the farm? These types of questions are more important sometimes than that USDA Organic seal.

While people who don’t live in food deserts may not think much about that issue, health-related factors involving the daily diet affect everyone. Also, as deregulation of the food and drug industry re-emerges to possibly make knowing what is in the food we eat increasingly difficult, people of all age groups and every socioeconomic background face the challenge of ensuring what we eat can pass our own personal health inspection.