Finding the oasis in local food deserts

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

You are getting hungry. Very hungry. What do you do?

Chances are if you are a VCU student and have a meal plan, you might just visit Shafer Court or one of the many restaurants or businesses that accept meal swipes or dining dollars. Unfortunately for many other students and Richmond residents, those options are not available. Getting fresh meat, produce or other groceries is much tougher in some Richmond neighborhoods, especially without a car.

illustration by Veronica Sung

Joseph Cates, professor of “Food for Thought” at VCU, said transportation plays an impact on local residents when it comes to buying fresh food.

“You get into the real application of these things, especially in Richmond where you don’t have the most effective public transportation system, so you think of the reasonable range to travel, it becomes problematic, especially if they’re caring for children or have to change buses,” Cates said.

Neighborhoods and districts farther than two miles from a grocery store are known by the USDA and many international government agencies as “food deserts.” Populated areas with food deserts often suffer socio­economic disparities which enhance the problem. Knowledge of food preparation, finance for nutritious, healthy products, and the time and desire to cook all tie into what Cates calls “food insecurity.”

Though Jackson Ward is not technically designated a food desert, many residents face the same dilemma and use stores like the Broadway Market Place at 312 E. Broad St. to shop for groceries.

“People largely use EBT, food stamps,” said Market Place employee Brandon Graig. “They get chips, never the bananas or yogurt, that stuff’s expensive here. The stuff at our deli is popular, but patrons mostly get junk food. A lot of junk food.”

Outside of the direct VCU realm, the Byrd House Market at 980 Idlewood Avenue in Oregon Hill offers those with a student ID a “variety of options from specific vendors,” according to their website. Open from 3 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays until April, students and residents can purchase fresh produce and goods from a number of local farmers and vendors.

Next month, Cates will help organize an Iron Chef­-like event where contestants will compete to make the best meal using slow cookers. The event, Cates said, is meant to teach students about cooking their own meals and being self-­sufficient. The winner of the competition will receive a free Hamilton Beach slow­ cooker, according to Cates.

More information about the event will be released in the coming weeks.

Recognizing that some VCU students may very well be located in one of Richmond’s many food deserts and might lack reliable transportation, here is a guide to creating a three-course meal from food found at a typical convenience store. All ingredients for each meal cost less than $15 total and can be used for other meals as well.


Most stores sell cereal, bananas and eggs. These items can be used to make a fairly quick and easy big breakfast. Simple cereals such as Frosted Flakes or Cheerios can go a long way with the addition of fruit. Bananas are an easy addition. As for eggs, stores carry cartons to make them any style (fried, scrambled, poached, etc.) and to batter slices of bread to make French toast. French toast could also be topped with bananas as well. Include at least cinnamon, or nutmeg and powdered sugar on top of the slices. This serves more than a full meal and can be made quickly.


In the culinary repertoire of typical student­ cooking, making stews and soups is severely underrated. A simple example of a stew recipe: Two cans of chili beans, two cans of tomato soup, and two packets of ramen. Students probably have more packets of ramen than they can ever imagine using (thanks, Mom) so trying inventive ways to prepare it will make that massive stash hidden in your cupboards disappear fast.

The issue of food deserts is one recognized by many in Richmond. Sure enough, Cates said, his class often focuses on the subjects of food deserts and food insecurity. On campus, Ram Pantry serves as an option for students who do not have the time or money to obtain groceries for the week. With a student ID, students are able to collect five options; canned goods, pasta, cereal and more. Produce is also available and is not counted toward the five picks.


As Thanksgiving approaches, memories of turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie come to mind. Turkey sandwiches are typically a spectacular leftover option and very popular.

Thankfully, most convenience stores sell deli turkey used to make sandwiches. Serve with corn kernels from a can (Do not forget to add butter and salt) and make a sweet yam and peach bake from ingredients in a can. Marshmallows are also available to layer the bake and make it even sweeter.

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