Friday, June 3, 2011

Food Apartheid

In 2007, I left southern Indiana to take a job with Community Farm Alliance (CFA) in Louisville, Kentucky. At that time, CFA had an office in the Portland Neighborhood of West Louisville, which had opened in 2003. My job description was “business development organizer.” My responsibilities included incubating two different local food distribution businesses to “rebuild the local food system."

Rebuilding a food system? But didn’t we already have a food system? After all, how could we live without a food system when food is the most important item we purchase, necessary for life, the fuel for everything we do?

Turns out we do have a food system, but that it is severely broken. And it seems to be broken on both ends. That is, on the supply side, conventional agriculture has led to the creation of food that tastes like Styrofoam and sometimes has the equivalent nutrition of that substance. On the demand side, people in the know, with money and access, are clamoring for local food, with small family farmers scrambling to find market channels and meet the need. However, not everyone has equal access to this new clean, fair, local food. This Jewish mama, who lives for the knowledge that everyone I know and love is eating well, was shocked to find out that my job description included attempting to rebuild a food system in a city that had created a “food desert,” where a large percentage of its residents had limited access to fresh, affordable food. The majority of the residents who live in these neighborhoods of Louisville are African-American and low-income families.

Low-income people of color in our American cities are being denied access to fresh food for very complex reasons that will surface over the next few blogs. As a result, they suffer disproportionately. Their neighborhoods have limited options for purchasing fresh, healthy food, and as a result, the residents, especially the children, are getting serious diet-related illnesses due to limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Back in 2007, I had never heard of the term “food desert.” I had certainly experienced a rural food desert first hand. But I have lived in many US and foreign cities, including Queens, New York, Paris, France, San Francisco, California, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington where farmer’s markets and small produce stores seemed to be everywhere. How could this wealthy American city—home to the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon and Southern Belles—have allowed a food desert to happen?

I decided that the best way for me and my daughter to understand this “food apartheid” was to move into the neighborhood ourselves, which we did in April of 2007. This turned out to be an important move on our part, as we got to live the problem others often just talk about. What I lived with and saw in West Louisville that year, and the three years since I left the neighborhood to move to another one that is more food blessed, has turned my life upside down. Since that April day, I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t spent a portion of it trying to work with residents, farmers, and organizers to figure out solutions to this problem.

Our house in West Louisville that first year became the neighborhood hub, as the local children soon found out we were a house full of fresh cooked food, lively conversation and a friendly dog. But finding that food to cook was another story. In the entire neighborhood of nearly 65,000 people, there were only two major grocery stores—both Kroger’s—a grocery store chain headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a Sav-A-Lot. In West Louisville there is an average of only 1 full service grocer per 25,000 residents, compared to Jefferson County wide ratio of 1 per every 12,500 residents. According to the last census, about 51,000 of West Louisville’s 64,741 inhabitants are African American, or 79%. By census tract, the average median household income is $20,900, about half of the Jefferson County-wide median of $39,457. In some parts of the neighborhood, the median household income drops below $10,000, less than one-fourth of the county median.

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness reports in its Preliminary Food Desert Analysis that nearly 100,000 Louisville citizens live in ‘food desert’ communities characterized by extremely low-access to fresh food.  Yet, low-income West Louisville is home to the highest density of fast food restaurants in the country.  In 2007, as a result of poor access to healthy food, only 13% of African American men, and 23% of African American women in West Louisville were consuming the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, compared with 24% of white men, and 34% of white women in the same area. The lack of access to fresh foods, and the ease of access to foods with lesser nutritional value, has led to extreme health disparities. In 2007, an astounding 67% of African American women and 74% of African American men living in West Louisville were obese.
Children from low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately as family’s loss knowledge about produce origin, nutritious meal preparation, and budget planning for healthy diets. As a result, Kentucky has grown the third highest childhood obesity rate in the country at 37.1% of children.

More later on the road my daughter and I traveled with the neighborhoods to meet these challenges.

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