Aug 30 2016 How can cross-sector collaboration help address food deserts across the United States?
With 700,000 Dallas residents (245,000 of whom are children) living in low income communities that have limited supermarket access, and 36 percent of Dallas area ZIP codes providing limited access to affordable and nutritious food, local leaders are looking for ways to help. A July editorial in the Dallas Morning News argues that a recent local government vote to set aside $3 million to lure grocery chains to southern Dallas is but a “small step” to address “one of Dallas’ more persistent and perplexing economic development and health challenges.” True change, they argue, will require a comprehensive, cross-sector plan to combat food deserts. “Public subsidies alone cannot solve the problem,” they argue. “There are ways to improve the odds by joining the state, the city, socially-conscious investors, and others in efforts that go beyond tossing a fistful of dollars at the problem and wishing things improve.” And what’s true in Dallas is true in communities across the country — Holistic and intersectional approaches can help address food deserts by focusing on not one but multiple aspects of the food system.
The lack of access that individuals or households have to supermarkets, farmers markets, or other places that sell affordable, nutritious food is a problem across the United States. According to the Center for American Progress, roughly 18 million people live in food deserts. Roughly half of those are low-income, and roughly 2.3 million live in areas that are more than 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. While many Americans can drive a car to the nearest supermarket to find fresh foods, for others, just getting to a store with healthy options is an obstacle that could result in an hour-long excursion through a city’s transportation system. In Dallas, for example, individuals living in more affluent neighborhoods in the northern part of the city often have vehicle access, but are located much closer to supermarkets than those in lower income neighborhoods to the south, where many rely on public transportation.
What’s true in Dallas is true in communities across the country — Holistic and intersectional approaches can help address food deserts by focusing on not one but multiple aspects of the food system.
Food deserts pose a tremendous challenge, and tackling it will take coordinated efforts among leaders across cities and states, and across sectors. Cross-sector collaboration provides one helpful pathway to helping food desert regions, as each sector brings distinct resources and capabilities to the problem. The public sector often holds knowledge of the problem in a local context, as well as government powers related to tax incentives and zoning regulations. Meanwhile, business-sector partners are needed to open and operate grocery stores, providing their products and services to underserved communities. The non-profit sector often uniquely holds the trust of and has relationships with key leaders of local populations, has the capacity to direct grants and low-interest loans toward these initiatives, and brings a focus on other, related issues such as public transportation, physical activity, employment, and more. While each sector’s assets are important in their own right, they are amplified when leveraged in concert with those of other sectors.
Turning back to Texas, cross-sector stakeholders in Brownsville have been working together for several years to eliminate food insecurity in their community. Individuals from across sectors formed a Community Advisory Board with the goal of creating an environment for healthier lifestyles. Their work includes programs like a bike giveaway and improving signage on the neighborhood streets — programs spearheaded by the public sector — and promoting healthy eating and active living in the city’s facilities — in which the private sector played an important role. The non-profit sector, represented by the Wellness Coalition, contributed to the collaboration by hosting the farmers market, one of the Coalition’s major efforts to improve access to health food in the community. The organization works closely with the Parks and Recreation department to facilitate the farmers market program. As a result of the collaboration’s work, 84 percent of Brownsville residents surveyed at the Farmers’ Market believe they eat more fruits and vegetables when shopping there. To learn more, see our case study on Brownsville.
While each sector’s assets are important in their own right, they are amplified when leveraged in concert with those of other sectors.
In New Orleans, cross-sector partners established the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. A partnership among the City of New Orleans and non-profit organizations Hope Enterprise Corporation and The Food Trust has proved to be beneficial to the recovering city post-Katrina. The collaboration has provided funding to encourage grocery stores to open in areas of the city that lost locations in the storm and flooding that followed. According to the Center for American Progress, more than 30 supermarkets are located in New Orleans today, compared with less than half that number almost 10 years ago. The Fresh Food Retailer Initiative has gone beyond opening grocery stores, also supporting New Orleans’ economic development through increased employment and neighborhood revitalization opportunities.
Long-term commitment from diverse groups can help an initiative working to eliminate food deserts ultimately achieve success. Cross-sector collaboration can help present healthy choices to those who are typically denied these choices simply due to where they live. Working across sectors isn’t easy, but it is ultimately worthwhile as it helps tackle this complex and widespread phenomenon.