Could Local Food and Urban Agriculture Shrink Food Deserts?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as places characterized both by a low-income population and a dearth of fresh food within a mile radius. And a large part of the Louisville Metro area falls under that definition: from most of the West End to Shively, Newburg and parts of Southern Indiana. Some non-profits and entrepreneurs are experimenting with using local food and urban agriculture to correct inequalities in Louisville’s food landscape.

In the produce section of my local grocery store, I’m walking along displays of tomatoes, zucchini, rows of fresh greens. Everything looks pretty good. But if it didn’t, I would just get in my car and drive somewhere else.

But this is a luxury a lot of Louisville residents don’t have. Some are low-income, and live in areas without stores that sell fresh produce. Many are dependent on the city’s bus system, or on places they can walk to. They live in food deserts.

Food deserts are areas that can’t support a permanent supermarket, or a specialty store—or at least, that’s the perception. And that’s why Root Cellar owner Ron Smith decided to conduct some market research. He’s standing in a lot in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood, next to the small bus he’s outfitted to be a mobile local food store.

“So when you’re exploring and you’re trying to break into neighborhoods that may not financially have the ability to support a store like this, it’s important to do your research,” he says. “And the Root Mobile provides me with an opportunity to connect with the people in the neighborhoods prior to putting in a brick and mortar store.”

So far, Smith is in this spot every Friday afternoon. And his presence is definitely appreciated by Parkland resident Anesha Young.

“I’ve been looking for some home grown tomatoes!” she exclaims, checking out the produce. Young buys those tomatoes, and some peaches. She plans to come back next week for more.

“We can’t find any fresh fruit anywhere,” she says. “And then when we go into the grocery stores here, the produce is terrible.”

Part of Smith’s store’s mission is to bring fresh, local food into food deserts. But he’s not shy about the fact that he runs a for-profit business. If he can’t find the customers in these Louisville neighborhoods, he won’t keep coming back.

Across town, non-profit New Roots takes a different approach. Every other week, director Karyn Moskowitz and her volunteers are setting up in one of four places, each in typically underserved neighborhoods. These Fresh Stops offer residents produce on a subscription basis. They pay a small amount on a sliding scale every two weeks, and get a heaping box of whatever produce Moskowitz has available.

At the Fresh Stop in Shawnee, she shows off the food.

“Our first beautiful green beans of the year!”

She bites into one.

“Mmmm! Very delicious organic green beans.”

It sounds kind of corny to say, but the food is so fresh, it’s actually glowing a little.

“We feel that everyone has a right to access fresh food so they can live healthy lives,” Moskowitz says. “It’s a justice issue for us. So what we’re trying to say is everyone has a right to this food, not just if you live on the East End and can show up at a farmers market.”

Both Smith and Moskowitz carry local food in their stores. And when it’s available, they buy from urban market gardens, like the Peoples’ Garden operated by nonprofit Louisville Grows. But while there may be a demand, Moskowitz says there’s just not enough food being grown commercially in the city to supply her Fresh Stops.

“In the end, you know, when we have 68 families coming to one Fresh Stop, it’s very hard for a small community garden to keep up with the demand,” she says.

Efforts like Smith’s and Moskowitz’s are one way to bring fresh produce into food deserts. But another way is urban agriculture. Lisa Markowitz is the chair of the University of Louisville’s Anthropology Department.

“I think urban agriculture can certainly augment people’s diets substantially,” she says. “And there’s a lot of evidence for that in case studies from all over the world. Because people, particularly in the global south, have been farming cities for a long time.”

But when it comes to food deserts, urban agriculture is only part of the solution. Markowitz says she believes fully addressing the problem will involve collaboration between urban and rural farmers, as well as a strong local food network.

WFPL Intern Fiona Grant contributed to this story.

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Do you live in a food desert? Check out this map of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and specialty stores in Louisville and Southern Indiana.

For more in this series on urban agriculture, click here.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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