Welcome to Richmond: food desert central

Victoria Zawitkowski
Staff Columnist

Illustration by Shannon Wright

Location, location, location. It is everything when people are looking to buy a home or picking a university, but people forget to consider what their location means for their access to affordable, fresh and healthy food. Richmond, like many urban environments, is often considered a place where everything is in walking distance. Yet many communities in Richmond are food deserts.

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “urban neighborhoods or rural towns without easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” In urban environments, that means the grocery store is more than a mile away and technically would require the individual to have a vehicle. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 18.3 million Americans are living in food deserts. More than half of those people are low-income.

Unless you’re a VCU student with a meal plan, you may have to walk more than a mile to buy food and then walk back (if you can) with arms full of groceries. Even for the large population of bikers in this city, getting all of your food needs met with a single trip to the grocery store is nearly impossible without a vehicle.

There are convenience stores on most corners in Richmond. Usually they’re packed with the usual array of soft drinks, beer, chips, and cookies. Occasionally they have some bruised bananas or sad apples in the refrigerated section, and they’re all tagged with a serious upcharge compared to a regular grocery store.

In 2011, the Richmond Times-Dispatch did a price comparison for six common grocery items at three different stores in the Fay Towers neighborhood. After looking at a small local market, a chain grocer and a discount food store, they found prices ranged from $10.38 at the discount food store to $16.33 at the local market. Most low-income families cannot afford a car or bus fare to get them to a grocery store so their options are limited. Those families are at a higher risk for obesity and obesity-related illnesses.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million households in the U.S. experience difficulty getting to established grocers, who normally have lower prices and fresher produce. Studies have also shown that wealthier neighborhoods have three times as many grocery stores as poorer neighborhoods. On the same note, predominantly white neighborhoods have four times the number of supermarkets that predominantly black neighborhoods have. Food stamps, one of the first lines of defense against malnutrition, are also only accepted at certain stores.

The question remains: How do we go from food desert to food oasis?

There are a few small community gardens in Richmond, thanks to the effort of a few locals, but there aren’t enough to sustain the population. Our state and city representatives could provide incentives to grocery stores for setting up shop in neighborhoods that actually need them.

The National Center for Public Research identified a top site for a grocery store in one of Chicago’s food deserts. They found that a grocer in that area would impact the lives of 24,000 people. Using their metrics and controlling for other factors, they found a total reduction of 13 years in liver disease, 15 years in diabetes and 112-year reduction in cardiovascular diseases.

Food and health should be a top priority for every local community and on a federal level. If the government is not getting involved like they should, it is the community’s responsibility to give everyone access to locally grown produce. Richmond is so full of art, music and culture. It should not be lacking in an area as important as nutrition.

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