Living in a Food Desert

Access to nutritious food is one of the most essential needs for living well and living sustainably. I essentially live in a food desert, defined by the USDA as a low-income area where residents have low access to a grocery store or supermarket. I don’t technically live in a food desert because my closest grocery store is 1 mile away (in order to meet the food desert definition “a share of the people” need to be at least 1 mile away from a grocery store) but in all honesty the challenges of being 1.0 and 1.1 miles away from a grocery store are no different. Things were a little bit easier when I first moved to the neighborhood; we had a co-op right down the road. Unfortunately, the co-op has closed and since been replaced by a marijuana dispensary. (You know you live in Washington when there are more dispensaries than grocery stores in your neighborhood).

food desert .png
I live in one of the orange neighborhoods — a low-income neighborhood where a significant number of residents are >0.5 away from a grocery store. Source: USDA Food Access Research Atlas

I think about food security and food access a lot. In my professional life I work for a nonprofit that distributes food to emergency food sites in Pierce County. Fortunately, because of my employment situation, I do not face the challenge of food insecurity, but I can empathize with the challenge of keeping my kitchen stocked with food that is good for me and good for the planet. I don’t have a car, which is most of the time an annoyance but one I can deal with relatively easily. Unfortunately, Pierce County has pretty terrible public transportation and recently removed the bus line that took me directly to my closest grocery store. When I need groceries I either rely on friends for a ride or have to get to and from the grocery store by a combination of walking and the bus. Tacoma is also hilly and known for our less than great weather during the winter, so getting groceries can be a challenge. I can always use a ride-sharing app if I’m in a pinch, but this option is not affordable to a lot of people that face the same transportation challenges that I face.

The challenge I face once I get to the grocery store is trying to figure out how much food to buy. If I commuted with a friend I can go all-out and get as much food as I need. But if I’m walking or taking the bus, I am limited by the amount of food I can carry in one trip. This gets especially tricky with produce. Ideally, I would grocery shop multiple times a week to get the produce I need for a few days at a time. This method would help me cut back on waste since I wouldn’t but broccoli on Monday to cook on Friday only for it go bad on Wednesday. But since I know how much of a pain it is to get to and from the grocery store, I usually either often over or under buy produce – leaving me with nothing fresh to eat mid-week or produce that has gone bad when I’m ready to use it. Fortunately, I only have to buy food for myself. I can only imagine trying to carry food for a family on the bus. I’ve seen people try to bring 10+ bags of groceries onto the bus; it does not seem like a pleasant experience.

All of these experiences make me extremely frustrated when critics of benefits like food stamps cite the prevalence of obesity in low-income households as some kind of proof that poor people aren’t faced with food challenges. It’s not that people in food insecure households don’t want to eat healthy food; they simply may not have the choice. Between walking and waiting for inconvenient buses, it can take me more than an hour just to get to and from a grocery store, never mind the time I have to use shopping and to prepare the food once I have it. But with plenty of fast-food options available to me within just a few blocks, it’s usually easier and more efficient to just eat out. Now imagine being in a household where you have multiple kids to transport to-and-from school, home, the grocery store etc. You may work irregular hours that make it impossible to get to and from the store in time to prepare a healthy meal for your family, so why wouldn’t you take your family to the fast-food place around the corner and get them all value-meals. You probably know it isn’t the best for them, but your number one concern is making sure your kid goes to bed with a full belly, nutrition may be a luxury you can’t afford to prioritize.

The closest grocery store to my apartment is the purple Safeway, exactly 1 mile away from me.

The purpose of this post is a mixture of venting about my own challenges and acknowledging that living a sustainable life is a huge privilege. As I consider options like cutting meat out of my diet and eating less frequently at places that use disposable packaging, I want to remind myself that I can’t cast judgment upon people that can’t afford to make these changes. I’d also implore you to practice empathy when you consider other people’s situations and choices. People from all walks of life love to police people’s food choices, from Republicans in congress and the senate that want to impose more restrictions on SNAP to liberal vegans on the internet that spew hate at anyone that doesn’t live their lifestyle, we could all do a little better to think about the other person before we condemn them. To quote a favorite book from my childhood, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”

Want to see if you live in a neighborhood that struggles with food access?


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