Turning Food Deserts into Food Desserts by Design

Food Deserts:  Choice and Design

Scarcity of food still exists amidst the fresh fruit and vegetable abundance most of us experience in the US.  And even in the US, people are starving themselves of nutrients through an improper diet of fast food and over-processed food.  To loosely quote guerrila-gardener extraordinaire Ron Finley, for some people in the US, this lack of a good, healthy diet is not even by choice but by design.

True, many of us who are surrounded by healthy choices and unhealthy choices, many times choose the unhealthy.  Fast food over whole foods.  But places exist in the US where the only choice around is the unhealthy.  Places exist where fast food and packaged and over-processed food are in abundance–places where kids haven’t even tasted a strawberry in its native form but have only come to know its rough derivatives — strawberry flavored pop-tarts and berry franken-cereal–things that have a flavor of the strawberry without all the health benefits.   For miles upon walkable mile within many inner cities there are places where grocery stores do not go. Here fast food joints and little party stores that major in processed food are abundant.   And people without an ability to get out of these places have to eat what they are served.

Lack of Gardens

So what does Ron mean when he says this is by design?  Well, I think, he literally means the way cities have designed themselves, they have regulated the poorest of the poor to eat these nutrient-poor, pseudo foods.  For example, when Ron first started gardening his neighborhood in South Central LA, he put a garden out on the green strip that lines the road in front of his house.   City officials told him that his garden was against city ordinances and that he had to remove it or risk being fined.  While Ron fought the city planners and finally won his right to plant his garden, numerous barriers still exist in many communities that prevent people from growing their own food.  The problem is design.

Lack of Knowledge

And as  I mentioned in a previous post on wild edibles, flawed design also affects knowledge.  In that previous post, I told a story about a time when I volunteered with my family at our local food pantry.  The director’s of the pantry set the pantry up like a grocery store.  The people that came for food walked from shelf to shelf selecting what they wanted for the week.    The season was warm.  It was during the growing season.  I remember this, because farmers donated their excess crops to the pantry, in hopes that someone would eat the food, instead of it all going to waste.  Except  time and again as we volunteered at this pantry, I noticed that the fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t the first choice of many of these consumers.  In fact, my wife and I took much of the fresh stuff home because it wouldn’t last the next week when the pantry would again reopen.

This is also a design problem.  We have created or designed a society, through marketing and our love of high sugar, trans-fats, and our desire to not have to cook anything from scratch, to prefer prepackaged, junk food over the fresh more nutritious stuff.   And this design problem affects us all.  But because of this design, in poor communities, many of which  have limited access to these foods,  knowledge of how to prepare and eat this food is also lacking.  In these communities diversity is replaced with scarcity in more ways than one.  This is why Ron Finley can say in one of the videos that I watched, that there are children in his community that don’t even know what a carrot is.  Whether he was being sarcastic or not, I don’t know.  But when food isn’t grown nearby and is overprocessed and filled with all kinds of  synthetic ingredients, that’s what you come to expect.  The fresh stuff becomes exotic and difficult to handle.  It’s what you pass by for the more common fare.

Food as birthright

city farm in chicago

Food is our birthright.  All people should have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s too easy to grow stuff, at least in the US.  There is too much land.  If you look at any city, any suburb, any area with homes and industry and businesses, you will find tons of unused green space.  Some places they’re called lawns, other place they’re medians, but the fact of the matter is they’re many times underutilized and extremely plantable.  And seeds are cheap.  Why aren’t we re-greening our cities to take over the urban blight and the suburban blight?  The problem is design.

Some might say well, annual plants take a lot of work.  You have to till the soil.  plant the seed.  Water.  weed.  wait for harvest.  But there are other options.  Annuals are good, but this dependence on annual food for the majority of our foodstuff is part of a flawed mentality, another flawed design.

There’s Plenty of Space, We Need More Imagination

Take trees, for example.   Trees have to be planted once.  They have to be watered and weeded only until they take root.   In my neighborhood there are several ornamental trees bearing plums and crabapples.  Why aren’t we planting more trees, trees that actually bear a lot of fruit and nuts and greens?  Other perennial plants exist as well that are entirely edible, and grow quick, not ones that most people would recognize, but these plants could be planted and watered and eaten.  Previously, I mentioned wild plants.  Plants that are already growing among the grasses and in the sidewalk cracks and along the fence rows.  These plants, many of them edible are the plants that naturally grow in the area and could be encouraged to grow even more prolific.  Many of these wild foods are higher in nutrients than some of their cultivated counterparts and because they are naturalized to the area, they make sense to grow.

The only reason we haven’t made this step really is we refuse to design a system that is charitable and makes sense for all inhabitants.  Cities see the maintenance of lawns preferable over the maintenance of gardens.  But this design is only by preference and opinion.

But there are changes afoot.  There have been for several years.  People like Ron Finley are challenging the status quo system and bringing their gardens within city limits, and cities are in turn adopting new policies that allow for people to grow their own food.

Growing Power

One of the flagship organizations planting the inner city is a place called Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Growing Power has been around since 1993. The organization is run by a ex-college basketball player who grew up as a farmer named Will Allen.  Through his leadership, Allen has turned the only agricultural-zoned plot, some two acres of land within the city limits of Milwaukee, into a super-productive farm. According to the Growing Power website, the organization grows “some 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of fish, and a livestock inventory of chickens, goats, and bees.”  Allen uses aquaponics, a combination of fish farming and growing plants in water to stack functions at the site allowing for space that might just be used for growing produce to be used instead for both produce and protein.

Now, Growing Power manages several farms in the Milwaukee area, some very small and some as large as 40 acres.  They’ve also contributed to projects around the US and around the world.  Through their example, they’re showing that food doesn’t have to be scarce.  Food can be plenty.  Food knowledge can be regained, and when its grown in community and with intention, all members of the community benefit.

Gardening the World

Around the world, there are many other examples of greening urban space to benefit the poor who live in those communities.  People who live in those communities are cultivating the empty lots that surround their homes and turning them into gardens.  Organizations like the Greening of Detroit are creating microfarms and microparks around the city of Detroit, which has been shown to contribute to the  health of its residents, and even a reduction in crime.  While there are other issues to address that come about due to this greening affect for the most part this greening is good and it is benefiting those who need it the most.

Growing Power's aquaponic system
Growing Power’s aquaponic system

The Inner city as Barometer

So if you don’t live in the inner city, what’s the takeaway?  Why should this matter to you?  Well, I think there are two main problems here and these urban planters reveal the solution to these problems.  The first and most obvious problem is the lack of of food choice in the inner city, and this is a problem we should all be concerned with no matter where we live.  First and foremost, goodness and decency require us to make sure we meet the basic needs of human beings in our society, and members of the greater community taking action can meet these needs best (as Ron Finley shows).  But also in any organism the whole is only as strong at its parts.  When these members of the greater US community are struggling, and unhealthy, this has an affect on our lives and well being as well.    No matter how much we try to insulate ourselves from it, the needs of the inner city affect  the entire well being of the economy, the environment, the political atmosphere, even the psychology of the nation.

But I think the urban planters reveal another problem in this nation, one that is less obvious than the first.  In the environment, ecologists point to organisms that are more sensitive to the mal-effects of air pollution.  One of these in our area is old man’s beard.  It is a sensitive lichen, a barometer of sorts that indicates by its growth, whether or not the air is healthy.  Think of the inner city as a barometer.  When the inner city is affected by hunger and lack of choice it also can be an indicator of our own lack of choice.

I know when I started this that I mentioned many of us outside the inner city are depriving ourselves of good nutrients because we do have a choice, the choice between healthy whole foods and overprocessed junk.  But on a deeper level, even this choice is restricted by design.

Your Own Lack of Choice


Following are several factors that limit most people’s choices to get high nutritional food:

    • First, food on a whole has seen a loss of nutrients overtime due to growing conditions.  This study by Don Davis discusses evidence that since the 1940’s fruits and vegetables have sustained losses to their nutrient value, some losing as much as 40% on average.  This is due to increased fertilization, irrigation and a focus on high yield plants which apparently leads to a “dilution affect” of nutrients in the plant.  I imagine soil losses over time also have affected these nutrient losses.
    • Another factor is that farmers harvest much of the food we get in the store unripe and  with some of that food, picking it unripe is going to lead to a loss of nutrients.  This study on tomatoes, for example, show a significantly higher amount of lycopene in vine ripened tomatoes vs those picked and allowed to ripen off the vine.
    • Transportation is another issue.  The length of time it takes food to get to market and then to the consumer affects its nutrients.   See this study for example, on the loss of nutrients in fresh broccolli.  According to Jo Robinson, author of the book Eating on The Wild Side, Spinach also gives you only half of the antioxidant benefits of its freshly picked counterpart (pg 34).  Of course,  this is complicated and it is not the case with everything.  Berries, for example, increase in anthocyanins after picked, and continue to increase during transport.  Tomatoes lose vitamin C but gain vitamin A.
    • Not only that, the varieties that we find in the store represent just a fraction of the varieties that actually exist. If you doubt this, try comparing a seed catalog, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, to what you find in most grocery stores.   And here’s another thing, varieties that you find in the store are grown not primarily for nutrition and not even for flavor but for shelf life, size, and yield.  See this article on one scientists struggle to get a highly nutritious and super flavorful tomato into grocery stores via commercial growers, and his eventual rejection.
    • Another point I’d like to mention is that new studies have bolstered support for the fact that organic food is higher in nutrients than non-organic.  See this NPR article that discusses these studies.  Similar to the point above, scientists are finding that not coddling the plant actually leads to higher nutrients.  Many of these plant’s nutrients increase when the plant undergoes stress, which the organic model allows for more readily than conventional models.  Additionally, good organics is all about building soil and increasing nutrient uptake through microbial and fungal interactions, so it makes sense organic food would have an increased nutrient profile.

Eat Local First

man eating in a garden of tomatoes

So how do we regain the nutrition in our plants?  How do we make sure that we have choice to the very best, most nutritious varieties that exist?  How do we increase diversity in our diets.  And, how do we ensure that those who are the poorest among us can also increase diversity in their diets?  Well, again, the problem is design.

We have designed our lives around the convenience of junk food and the lack of variety we have in our diet.  We have designed a certain model of agriculture and a certain model of plant breeding that lowers the amounts of nutrients that are present in our foods.  This is our design.  We must focus on redesigning it to create a production system that is based on a local first agricultural model.   That’s the best replacement we have to the current model.  Truly, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to get all kinds of different food around the world, to be exposed to epic species of plant life that exist and feed on them.  Many of these exotics, we like to feature on One Thousand Foods.   But it is also important to recognize that an emphasis on eating the food that grows in our own locale is good and respectable both for the health of the planet, the health of the economy, the health of the inner city and for our own health.

Gardening Your Space

In Ron Finley’s world the absence of choice is obvious.  In many people’s world who live outside the inner city, we are oblivious to our lack of choices.  The remedy is easy:  support locally grown food in all its forms.   Support farmers and grocery stores that are trying to bring you the most fresh, most diverse food available.  And grow something, yourself.  Become a gardener.  This doesn’t mean you have to garden a large amount of food.  Even if you only grow a little bit of your own food then that’s going to help.  Your going to  increase the variety in your diet.  And especially grow those varieties that lose nutrients quickly.  That way, you’ll ensure your food is as nutrient dense as possible.  Gardening doesn’t have to be a chore.   Food wants to grow. That’s how the seed works.

In future articles, we’ll explore how to increase diversity in your diet through gardening.  We’ll show you what techniques work to increase yields.   And we’ll help make gardening easy, even for the least greenest of thumbs among us.  As Ron Finley says, gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act against such a poorly designed system.  Plus, you get strawberries. And who doesn’t like strawberries?

So tell us, do you plan on gardening this year? What are you going to garden?

Leave a comment Below.


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