Poverty, policy causing food deserts

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By Felicia Mesadieu, Contributor

Community speakers tackled the topic of unaffordable healthy foods in a June 15 forum in the CPACS Building.

UNO’s Public Policy Center collaborated with No More Empty Pots to organize a panel of food activists to educate the public on the existence of local food deserts.

A food desert is an area that lacks access to affordable and healthy foods that make up a nutritious diet, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Food deserts can have widespread effects on preventable health problems such as obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes, primarily impacting minorities, low-income and rural areas.

Des Moines University assistant professor and Iowa Food Systems Council board member F.R. Nordengren addressed a combination of factors that instigate the existence of food deserts.

“Food deserts come about from a number of issues, from real estate issues, zoning issues, from marketing issues,” he said. “From the marketing perspective, if a grocery can’t make a profit, it is very difficult for it to exist in a food desert.”

Recent Johns Hopkins graduate Kelly Bouxsan said she came out to support the event and stay connected with the community.

“I am fortunate not to live in areas that I think are affected by food deserts, but I am really passionate about the issue,” said Bouxsan.

State Sen. Brenda Council discussed the role of policy and facilitated the forum as experts offered a variety of perspectives and ideas to rectify the problem. She said her interest in the topic was prompted by the disproportionate rates of health conditions in her district in Northeast Omaha.  

“Poverty is the greatest single factor,” she said. “When you have a concentration of low income individuals, that is when you find the least access of full scale grocery stores.”

Council revisited her proposal of Legislative Bill 200, Adopt the Nebraska Healthy Food Financing Initiative Act, which was vetoed by Gov. Dave Heinemann in May. The bill was heavily influenced by research conducted in other states successfully executing urban agriculture programs, and reframed by the Pennsylvania Healthy Food Initiative Act. It would’ve provided a financing program to broaden underserved communities’ access to full grocery retail stores, farmers markets, community gardens and other resources that contribute to the remedy of food insecurities.

“We need to be doing things from a policy perspective that encourage the development of these types of programs and initiatives,” Council said. “That is why I introduced LB 200.”

When asked why policy has been lacking in resolution, Council replied, “I don’t believe people realize the magnitude of the problem.”

Panel experts offered suggestions of community education, local urban youth farming and aggregation of farmers and consumers as efforts to improve food security.

The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, founder of community garden program “The Big Garden,” expressed her concern for more questions and conversations on the critical nature of the issue.

“Why is there a pop machine in my office?” Ahlschwede asked. “Where is the apple cart?”

Experts said existing habits of unhealthy food consumption will not change overnight, but efforts to reduce food deserts are in the making. Charles Drew Health Center will host a farmer’s market this summer where SNAP benefits are accepted. Food and community activists have collaborated together to develop community gardens.

Leo Louis of community foundation NorthStar recently organized a community garden in North Omaha to increase access to healthy foods.

“When people know what they are eating and know the effects that it has on their body, it has an effect on their mind as well,” he said.

Mo Nuwwarah contributed to this article.

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