Bringing Fresh Foods into the Community (Farmers’ markets)
Studies show that high-income communities have greater access to healthy food than low-income communities.10 Organizers, Non-profit organizations, and lawmakers have discussed many ways to address this. Introducing farmers’ markets to these areas is one strategy that has gotten a lot of attention. These markets allow local farmers an opportunity to sell their fresh produce and allow community members to buy them at prices lower than or comparable to larger grocery stores.
Farmers’ markets are beneficial because they can be strategically set up in locations where community members are likely to frequent. For example, studies done by the Sustainable Food Center, in East Austin, Texas found that farmers’ markets placed near Women, Infant and Children’s clinics were meeting community needs.9 Further research suggested that low-income women were increasingly willing to shop at farmers’ markets if they were closer to their homes and had comparable prices to where they normally shop.9
Mobile and bus stop markets are also utilized to increase the availability of fresh foods in food deserts. Mobile markets consist of converting busses, trailers, and similar vehicles into grocery stores. These markets are great because they expand access to fresh foods to a larger area and they address barriers like lack of transportation.
Making fresh food available in under-resourced areas plays a significant role in solving the food desert problem. However, an increasing amount of studies suggest that access alone won’t help residents of these communities change their food shopping habits.
New Initiatives and New Stores
Over the years, various Government initiatives were put in place to address food deserts. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. It equipped grocery stores, corner stores, and Farmers’ markets with the tools needed to sell fresh, healthy food.12 In addition, numerous elected officials have worked towards changing local laws and tax codes to convince larger chains to build stores in these communities.
Food cooperatives, specifically designed to address the barriers that contribute to food deserts, show promise in many under-resourced communities in the U.S. They operate as full-service grocery stores that sell fresh foods at lower cost or provide incentives to buy them. For example, a common strategy was to offer residents a free healthy item for buying other healthy foods.
These food co-ops also offered a variety of other resources to help individuals. They partnered with organizations to conduct outreach on related health topics, provided health education classes, and set up community gardens. These specialized programs empower residents to regain control of their health by providing them with an alternative place to buy groceries and supplying the tools for the community to make more health-conscious choices.11
Making fresh foods affordable for low-income communities is an essential part of addressing food deserts. Research around urban residents who purchased their groceries at smaller neighborhood stores found that they pay between 3% to 37% more than individuals that live in suburban areas for the same products at supermarkets.7 For many, price is a top consideration when deciding on where to shop.
Larger grocery stores control their profits; thus federal, state, and local programs are forced to find creative ways to reduce cost. One such way was to allow residents to use their Electronic Benefits Transfers (EBT) from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at farmers’ markets, mobile markets and food co-ops. Some local programs went further by incentivizing use of SNAP Benefits to buy healthy foods. For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene gave their residents $2 coupons called Health Bucks, towards the purchase of fruits and vegetables for every $5 used from SNAP benefits at a farmers’ market.9 The program was successful in that it was a major source of income for the farmers and increased EBT sales. 9
Promote Healthy Eating
Some would argue, however, that increased availability and cutting costs isn’t enough. Trading in easy to access, inexpensive, delicious food for healthier options may require some convincing. Education about the components of a healthy diet and the reasons why spending the extra time and money to eat healthier is worth it may be required to see long-term change in community health.
For example, a study entitled “Vida Sana Hoy y Manana” done by San Diego State researcher, Guadelupe Ayala, provided training to Latino’s working in Bodegas (small stores in predominantly Latino neighborhoods) to strengthen their selling and marketing skills around fruits and vegetables. The study found that consumer fruit and vegetable consumption increased by about one additional serving per day.9 This is evidence of the promising effects of promoting healthy eating to individuals who live in food deserts.