During a period of steep underemployment between Spring 2007 and Spring 2009, I had a lot of time to think about how much food was not in my cupboards, and about the challenges that others faced as the nation slogged through a punishing economic downturn. For some reason, I am intrigued by food access. Maybe it's because I grew up in what today would be considered a food desert; maybe it's because at points in my life, when times have gotten lean, I have, too.
Following breadcrumbs of curiosity, I found a number of articles and reports on food-access issues in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Nashville, Louisville, Philadelphia, Binghamton, NY, and beyond.
It was also a period when First Lady Michelle Obama was beginning to throw her weight behind addressing food deserts and childhood obesity in America.
Through an acquaintance from the Tennessee area, I was put in touch with a geographical scientist in Los Angeles. I began to meet with him, and ride through Los Angeles, seeing the city of my childhood, through his eyes.
When I got the USC Annenberg fellowship, I was particularly interested in the ways that fellows had used ZIP code as a prism through which to view a community, and had always wanted to bring in the factor of how place affected experience.
Food access seems, on the surface, an inconvenience. But when people eat poorly, their health is adversely affected, which becomes a red-carpet welcome for such chronic conditions as heart disease, diabetes and cardiac arrest. It also leads to premature deaths.
Rather than look at these deaths one by one, Chicago-based researcher Mari Gallagher, who coined the term 'food desert,' weighs potential years of life lost to entire communities. In a 2003 survey, she tracked 337 collective years lost to cardiovascular disease in one African-American area, compared to 173 collective years lost to that condition within a neighboring white Chicago community.
My Fellowship project budget lent itself more towards words than moving pictures in distant cities, so I interviewed the manager of a Binghamton community garden, whom I'd met during my travels there, as well as a medical student who runs a Mobile Market in Nashville, TN, and finally a Los Angeles medical geographer, who knows the address of every L.A. business that is licensed to sell food. As I live only 15 or so miles from his office at Charles Drew University, I have been out on field trips into L.A.'s food deserts with him over the last year and half.
Ultimately my project got drilled down to a conventional three-part interview, and I'm pretty pleased with it. I favor the profile approach to storytelling. "Fruits of Their Labors" is a 4,000 or so word piece about three folks from three different cities, addressing food-access issues in different ways:
In Binghamton, NY, it's about Amelia LoDolce, a city employee, who buys a house in a "bad" neighborhood with toxic soil because she has a master's degree in urban farming, and knows how to pull organic produce from the most challenging circumstances. She manages one of a collection of urban gardens in the city, including an experimental neighborhood market garden, where fruits and veggies are sold at a farm stand, alleviating some of the strain on a community that has been without a neighborhood supermarket for more than 15 years. She wants to impart her love of the land to the next generation.
In Nashville, it's about Ravi Patel, a Vanderbilt University medical student, whose father owned convenience stores. As a future doctor, Ravi came to the rescue of community members whose health was affected by not having access to full-fledged supermarkets. He saw one patient after another with diet-related conditions at the clinic where he works. This provoked him to start a student-run mobile market that now services the city's food deserts several days a week. The model is being franchised to other cities. One quarter of the proceeds from the Nashville Mobile Market, which is housed inside a 28-foot trailer, goes back into the clinic.
And in Los Angeles, it's about geographical scientist Paul Robinson, PhD, whose team goes from store to store, accessing what's on shelves, and how a person trying to follow the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is likely to fare in various neighborhoods, many of which have markets that sell every kind of chip or soda, but scant fruits and veggies. Paul is not only a medical geographer, but also deals with being pre-diabetic. He says, "For many health conditions, food and exercise are the first form of medicine."
The things that helped me most with writing my article were reading widely on my subject, asking everyone I interviewed for referrals to others, and seeking subjects who had a distinct point of view on food access. I had tons of material that informed the piece, but ultimately did not land on the page because I wanted my story to be simple and engaging.
I'm still putting feelers out to see how I can continue to follow this story, and have some an impact on this problem that affects tens of millions of people.
Caption: In many communities around the country, students who are considered "food insecure" are sent home on Fridays with enough food for the weekend.