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The U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Department of Health and Human Services have defined a “food desert” as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.
Census tracts qualify as food deserts if they meet both the low-income and low-access thresholds:
• They qualify as “low-income communities,” based on having either a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income
• They qualify as “low-access communities,” based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).
Estimates are that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income.
This information is provided by the USDA. For more, visit http://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/fooddeserts.aspx
For families around Jefferson County, finding nutritious food can be more than challenging — it can be nearly impossible, particularly for those without their own transportation. That’s because, whether they know it or not, many families live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a “food desert.”
Food deserts are defined as neighborhoods without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, the only options are fast food or quick-stop stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.
Liz Hartman and her family weren’t aware when they moved from Oregon to Lakewood’s Two Creeks Neighborhood (in the northeastern part of the city, near Sheridan Boulevard) that their ability to find healthy food would be so limited.
“We knew it was going to be different in the city, and when we got here and looked around we didn’t see anything nearby,” Hartman said. “Why do we have to go so far to get good food that we know where it comes from?”
The Hartman family is fortunate enough to have a car, which allows them to make out-of-the-way drives to places like Whole Foods and Sprouts, but that isn’t an option for all, and Hartman recognizes that. To that end, she got involved with community efforts to make the area more easily traversable and to bring healthy options to residents. And she’s not alone.
Communities all over facing the challenges of food deserts are working with their city partners and other organizations (like schools, churches and nonprofits) to bring alternatives to everyone. Options for increasing access to food come in many forms — new markets, focuses on healthy food at existing shops, farmers markets and community farms.
In Lakewood, the city is working with the city of Denver and other organizations on the Westline Corridor collaborative to work on improving the area, thanks to a $4.5 million grant from the Denver Regional Council of Governments and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Part of that improvement includes the launch of the Mountair Park Community Farm, run by Sprouts City, where fresh produce is grown right where it is needed.
“There is a King Soopers in Edgewater and La Mexicana Carniceria, but that’s really the closest place for the neighborhood. And while bus access is pretty good, there are missing sidewalk links that make it difficult,” said Alexis Moore, an associate planner with Lakewood. “We heard quite clearly from people that more and better food is something they would really like around them.”
La Mexicana Carniceria, located at 706 Sheridan Blvd., offers a vibrant and full meat market, as well as produce and a bakery, but access remains a problem.
In Arvada and Westminster, farmers markets are popping up in areas that don’t have access to grocery stores, and Local Food Campus wants to bring a more healthy and fresh food to Westminster.
“Food deserts are more than just about nutrition — it’s also about economics,” said Nathan Mudd, vice president and co-founder of Local Food Campus. “One of the big pushes is the rural-urban connection. We want to get food from the rural to urban areas, and from one rural area to another.”
The food campus being proposed at Westminster is still being developed, but Mudd says public input and support has been widespread, and the organization hopes to keep up the momentum.
Data is still being collected about the impact of food deserts and the best solutions for people. Mallory Bettag, associate planning coordinator with Lakewood, is working on gathering information about food needs from a resident survey planned for this month. That data will later be presented to the city, along with recommendations.
The real key to addressing the issue is partnerships, Bettag said, and that’s something Hartman, who now works at the community farm, sees constantly.
“What better way to bring people together than food?” she said.
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