by Maxwell Reagan
What makes a city livable? There is no one answer for this question, but arguably one of the things that makes a city livable is food security. The ability for citizens to have constant access to a source healthy and nutritious food is a luxury that not all urban communities have. Some communities, such as Duluth’s own Lincoln Park, are living in the midst of a food desert.
What is a food desert?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert is a low-income area where a significant number of residents in an urban area live more than 1 mile away from a grocery store. In other words, it is a neighborhood where access to income, transportation, and healthy food options are limited.
How do food deserts occur?
Why do they occur? Are neighborhoods built this way or is there something that causes a food drought to eventually turn into a food desert? Well according to UMD Associate Professor Adam Pine, who has researched food deserts, it has been a long term trend.
“Over the years the model of neighborhood grocery stores and corner stores got to be difficult to maintain,” Pine said. “And so grocery stores got bigger and migrated out to the suburbs.”There is a lot more to why grocery stores are disappearing from city neighborhoods and why food deserts are occurring. Race, poverty, economics, and politics are all apart of the equation, says Pine and grocery stores are a way to study all of those things.
Mansfield Frazier, a Cleveland journalist and executive director of a nonprofit called Neighborhood Solutions Inc., says the Cleveland community Hough can’t find ways to get to the grocery store.
“It is a transportation problem,” Frazier said. “People don’t have cheap and dependable transportation to get to the supermarket. You solve the transportation issue you solve the food desert.”
The Lincoln Park Food Desert
Lincoln Park, the neighborhood just west of downtown Duluth, has no grocery store within one mile of the community. According to a study done by Pine and fellow colleague John Bennett that was published in Community Development in 2014, entitled “Food Access and Food Deserts: the diverse methods that residents of a neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota to provision themselves,” less than 1% walk or bike to the grocery store, 11% get to the grocery store by having someone drive them there, 3% take a taxi and another 3% take the bus (this was before the “Grocery Express” direct bus route). The remaining 82% drive themselves when they have time to make the commute.
The community has not had a full scale grocery store in over 30 years nor a small corner grocery store in over 10 years. Due to the lack of produce and other healthy food items found at grocery stores, residents may be forced to eat cheap fast food that is closer to them, leading to a cluster of health problems. According to Jodi Slick, the founder of Ecolibrium3, a local nonprofit out of Lincoln Park:
“The lifespan of residents of Lincoln Park is on average 11 years shorter than those in surrounding neighborhoods such as Congdon.”
So why not just build a grocery store? If it’s built, residents will come right? According to Pine, it is not that easy.
“The numbers are really tough on that, because the margins on grocery stores are really small,” Pine said. “It takes a giant capital investment to build a grocery store, and you would basically need to get one hundred percent of Lincoln Park to all shop at the same store.”
How Duluth is Combating This Food Desert?
Grocery Express Bus Route:
The Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) offers a specialized route that will bring riders to and from the Super One grocery store in West Duluth. The bus is fitted with storage bins to hold groceries to avoid having to hold onto your grocery bags. The DTA has recently updated their schedule by making six round trips a day during the workweek. The former route only operated Tuesday’s and Saturday’s.
Harrison Park Farmer’s Market:
The Harrison Park Farmer’s Market is located at the Harrison Community Center (3002 W. 3rd St.) and is a place to grab fresh and local food. They offer food options such as fresh fruits and veggies, wild rice, meat, eggs, bread and canned goods. The market is only open once a week during the months from June to October, Thursdays from 4pm to 7pm. The market accepts cash, credit, debit, and even matches SNAP benefits for fresh food.
Junior League of Duluth’s “Let it Grow” Project:
According to the organization's mission statement, “The Junior League of Duluth is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.” They proposed a project idea entitled the Let it Grow Project back in 2015 employing a multilayered strategy that’s purpose is help address the problems of food access and food insecurity in Lincoln Park. One of those strategies is the idea of a Deep Winter Greenhouse.
The greenhouse started construction last summer on a piece of underutilized land in the Denfeld neighborhood across the street from the Whole Foods Co-Op. Their hope is to give the community the ability to grow more quality and healthy food year round. This would allow the Harrison Park Farmer’s Market to operate further into the winter months. A time when it is far more difficult to find fresh food in a northern area.
How have other cities addressed the problem?
Minneapolis “Healthy Corner Store Program”:
In 2008, Minneapolis became the first city to require corner stores to carry more healthy food items. The Health Department and local store owners have been working together in order to offer more healthy and affordable food. Together they have been striving to improve healthy food inventory, foster community collaboration, and changing city food policy.
Baltimore “Virtual Supermarket Program”:
In Baltimore, the city’s Health Department has teamed up with ShopRite to combat food access with 21st century technology. Baltimore residents no longer need to visit the grocery store when they can get their groceries delivered to them. By ordering online, customers can pick up their groceries at nearby destinations such as the closest library. They also can use SNAP benefits when paying for their groceries at the pick up site.
Philadelphia “Fare and Square: Nonprofit Grocery Store”:
In 2013, Philadelphia opened the country’s first nonprofit grocery store in the Chester Community. The community had been without a grocery store since 2001. Because the store is a nonprofit, they can afford to devote resources to offering more affordable and healthy food to the community. In addition, they also accept SNAP benefits as well as offering cash benefits for those who sign up to be a member of the Carrot Club.
How to tell if you live near a food desert?
To see if you live in a food desert or if there is a food desert in your city, check out this USDA Food Access Research Atlas. The atlas uses lists of supermarkets as well as census data to map and mark food desserts on an updated and interactive map.
Unfortunately, there is no one single thing that will eradicate a food desert. It is a problem that has to be attacked at all angles. However, taking the initiative to fight this problem is one way to make a city like Duluth more livable.