Sunday, May 25, 2014

Food Desert Spread Solution!

From the Tennessean to Metro Pulse, the consensus is clear: We need a Kroger every mile to eliminate food deserts in our time.  Someone call in the bulldozers and get those homes out of the way!

After Glenn Reynolds linked to my food desert post the other day, James Lileks discovered a food desert in his old Fargo neighborhood. It is at the airport.

Also, someone who goes by the handle of Tim H. at Ricochet took a look at Blount County, TN - The Mirages In Your Local Food Desert and discovered the golf course and surrounding neighborhood are in his food desert.  He also provided some nice technical data from the government on how they came up with their food desert nonsense criteria.
  • Low Income is a tract with either a poverty rate ≥20%, or a median family income <80% of the state or region’s.
  • Low Access is a tract in which either ≥500 people or 1/3 of the population live too far from a supermarket. Too far is different for urban and rural areas: >1 mi. for urban and >10 mi. for rural.
Here is how the USDA worded that access part:
  • at least 100 households are more than ½ mile from the nearest supermarket and have no access to a vehicle; or
  • at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket, regardless of vehicle access.
Keep that low access definition in mind, because that is the thrust from the first lady and the publications that agree with her take on this issue.  I also had the fortune to see a documentary on supermarkets recently.  They differ from grocery stores not in variety of products, but in dollar volume of sales, which the USDA does not bother to mention in their criteria.  By any measure, they would be considered big businesses.  When I looked for the video all I found was endless videos on how to keep supermarkets from "ripping you off."

For another look at this "food desert" business I ran across a few interesting articles about it.  Not people looking into accuracy, or lack there of, but folks who are all on board to do something.  In each case, that something involves a lot of money, a healthy dose of complaining, and not much else.  It never involves expanding the job market.  A recent one from The Tennessean claims that poverty is reaching deeper into the suburbs, therefore suburbanites on "food stamps" (they have been replaced by SNAP and distributed on EBT cards, but okay) cannot find proper nutritious food.  Buried in the article is the real answer to that one:
Owner (of the J&B convenience store) Balban Mistry says he occasionally stocks bananas, but they often they go bad before consumers purchase them.
The article drones on about how some people without cars, and they were actually able to find a couple in the Rayon City community near Nashville without a car, are too far from Piggly Wiggly to walk.  Looks like that Cash for Clunkers stroke of bureaucratic brilliance had another unintended consequence.  Used cars are too expensive now for people who need them to buy groceries from bigger stores.

The Tennesseean has an interactive map for you to check if you live in a food desert and they say the source is the US Department of agriculture.  However, it does not look much like the USDA map I have been using:
Tennessean Food Desert Map
It is a good thing they urge everybody to check, because you don't need to be an Obama Phone user to live in a food desert.  My Knoxville subdivision is in the middle of one and you will be hard pressed to find a home here for less than $150,000, or one without at least two cars parked in front of the two car garage.

I found an article from 2011 about the food deserts in Knoxville's home grown version of The City Paper:  Metro Pulse - Knoxville's Food Deserts and a trip back in time to what the map looked like in 2011.
Not a Drop to Eat: Twenty census tracts in the heart of Knoxville are considered food deserts by the federal government, meaning that the majority of the residents have limited income and limited access to grocery stores.

From the article:
So what exactly is a food desert? It’s just as unhealthy as dessert, but it’s a lot less fun. The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract where the majority of the population is low-income and a large portion of that population lives at least a mile away from a supermarket. (In rural census tracts, that distance is 10 miles.)

A mile may not sound like a lot—and it’s not, if you own reliable transportation. But what if you don’t? Picture the number of trips you make just from your driveway to your house after a larger shopping expedition to Kroger. Now picture carrying all those bags a mile home. 
Oh, but there’s the bus, you say? Okay, picture loading up all those bags in a foldaway rolling cart and sitting outside on a June afternoon waiting for the bus to take you two miles—a bus that comes only once an hour, a bus that is highly unlikely to stop on your doorstep. Picture doing that at age 75.
The article then mentions a mythical $6 gallon of milk at a mythical convenience store.  The articles also mentions the poor not having vehicles, without a mention of the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program.  A scheme that limited their choice in cheap transportation more than any other event in  the 21st century.

Going back to the Metro Pulse map for a moment and comparing it with the current map by the USDA, one can see that the food deserts have sprawled out all over the city in just three years.
Current USDA food desert map
Both the Tennessean article and the Metro Pulse article tirelessly repeat the theme that poor people do not have transportation access enough to get to a good store, and in both of their maps the stores must be within one mile to count.

So where does that leave us to satisfy these people?  Apparently the government buses don't go to the right places and, as the Metro Pulse articles states, toting a carload of groceries on a government bus is a bit of a chore.  Apparently the Knoxville CAC service is not up to snuff for these newspapers, even though they offer door-to-door service from a little as fifty cents, to a max of $3.00 for anybody in need.

What is another alternative?  One would think that sticking a full service, healthy food oriented, co-op in the middle of a food desert would help, but it obviously doesn't.

Knoxville's mayor decided to enter the city in a food desert reduction competition, and Metro Pulse covered it:  Plowing Ahead: Knoxville Didn't Win Bloomberg Philanthropies' Contest Money. Is the 'Food Corridor' Dead?

Her idea was to have locals take to planting food in city owned empty lots and sell the fresh produce, presumably in the affected areas.  The city did not win the $5 million dollars, but the project was not scrapped.  The city is pouring taxpayer money and local grants into the project.

Now, check the definitions again and see if that is going to do anything to get a food desert off the map.  Even if Knoxville won $5 million dollars, it would have no effect at all.  Unless these 100-plus downtown farm stands count as at least a grocery store, or a super market, AND they are spaced so that every poor person in a census tract is within 1/2 mile of one, then the food desert stays.  If the food desert stays, so does the food desert alarm, as well as the demand to do something, with more and more of other people's money.

The only way to get every single needy resident within a one mile hike to a grocery store is build a grocery store at every two miles within the census tracts that claim high poverty density.  Actually, that only "solves" the problem for the original definition.  If you look at that last map, the orange areas are food deserts where the poor are .5 miles from a qualifying store.  The one farthest west has a Walmart Superstore, a Sam's club, an Asian grocery, and a Dollar General store.

Interesting too is how an "urban area" appears on these maps.  Square mile after square mile of single family homes in pricy subdivisions are considered "urban" and they become a food desert if there is not a Kroger connected by a sidewalk to them..

Apparently these people will not be satisfied until there is a Harris Teeter on every block.  Of course, there are other solutions, like gathering all of the poor into housing within 0.5 mi. of a grocery store.  The cities could give their surplus vehicle fleets to the poor.  Zoning laws could be eliminated, so anybody who wants to sell groceries from their living room can do it, but unless they move more produce than a Super Walmart, the food desert stays on the map.  Will they then demand trailer parks in every parking lot for the displaced residents?  Probably.

Ⓐ Steve Ⓐ

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