What Will Make The Food Desert Bloom? : The Salt Improving the health of people living in food deserts is much more than making sure there are veggies on the shelves. As activists have learned, it takes education and some old-fashioned innovation, too.
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What Will Make The Food Desert Bloom?

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What Will Make The Food Desert Bloom?

What Will Make The Food Desert Bloom?

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Here in the U.S., an effort is under way to help people in poor neighborhoods lead healthier lives. And one part of that effort involves food. Activists say nutritious food is often hard to find in these neighborhoods and they've pushed to bring in supermarkets. But they've also learned that grocery stores by themselves don't make people healthier, as NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When Duane Perry started an organization called The Food Trust 20 years ago and set up farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia, he wasn't thinking about what makes people healthy or sick. He was thinking about basic fairness.

DUANE PERRY: We would go out and hear stories from little kids who would say, my grandmother has to travel to the suburbs in Springfield. She has to borrow a car to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Why is that?

CHARLES: But he soon realized that the areas with lots of little corner stores selling mostly canned food, snacks, and soda but no nice, big grocery stores with produce sections, these neighborhoods also have high rates of illnesses related to poor diet: obesity, diabetes. And he gradually became convinced providing fresh fruit and vegetables really could make people healthier.

PERRY: We actually heard stories of nurses who would actually buy food, bring it into the health center and distribute it to their clients because that was the only way for them to get food.

CHARLES: Lots of people in other American cities and in Europe were noticing the same thing. Some people started calling such areas food deserts. Although Yael Lehmann, who's now executive director of The Food Trust, doesn't really like that term.

YAEL LEHMANN: It gives this idea that maybe there's no food at all. But the truth is that they're bombarded with soda and chips and unhealthy products.

CHARLES: In recent years, across the country more and more activist groups have been working to bring better food to low-income neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken up the cause. Also Michelle Obama with her Let's Move campaign against childhood obesity.

The Food Trust and other similar organizations have succeeded in one way; they've set up farmers markets and persuaded many supermarkets to move to neighborhoods that don't have any. But it's not really clear that this kind of thing - better access to better food - actually changes what people eat.

BARRY POPKIN: We've learned that access alone doesn't do it.

CHARLES: Barry Popkin is a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina. A few years ago, he chaired a meeting of experts on the health effects of food deserts. There have been a lot of disappointments, he says. The farmers markets didn't seem to have a measurable effect on people's health in that neighborhood, nor did bringing in a supermarket.

POPKIN: And out of that we've now come up with additional efforts which are starting to work.

CHARLES: These additional efforts include making good food more affordable; also education and some good old-fashioned sales promotion. For instance, The Food Trust in Philadelphia is shifting gears a little. Instead of just trying to bring in supermarkets, it's working with the owners of hundreds of little corner stores, the ones that have a reputation for selling mostly junk food.

The Polo Food Market at 10th and Brown streets, for instance, has a new, colorful refrigerator. It's on loan from The Food Trust and it's stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Store owner Salinette Rodriquez says she always wanted to sell this kind of thing.

SALINETTE RODRIQUEZ: So when they came with the idea, I said great, this is what we need.


CHARLES: She says dozens of kids come in here every morning and leave with fruit.

RODRIQUEZ: Once they see something, they'll take it. If they don't see it, they're not going to take it.

CHARLES: So, what's your big seller?

RODRIQUEZ: The oranges and apples.


RODRIQUEZ: And the bananas, definitely - a lot of bananas.


CHARLES: On several store racks there are signs that rate products green, yellow or red, based on how nutritious they are. And there are flashy little cards with recipes for how to use some of those green-coded ingredients. Each of these meals should feed a family of four and cost about $5. On this day, the tray of recipe cards is full.

RODRIQUEZ: We restocked today. You know, but they just take them and they say, oh, I did this - this one is good. And they come and grab another one, different one. I'm like yeah, good.


CHARLES: How long will it take before those are all gone, do you think?

RODRIQUEZ: I would say a week and they're gone.

CHARLES: Barry Popkin, from the University of North Carolina, says this is the sort of effort that really can work. But changing food habits won't happen quickly, he says. Powerful economic incentives got us into this situation over the course of the past half-century.

POPKIN: In 1950, low-income Americans ate the healthiest diets in our country. In 2010, they ate the least healthy diets. And that's because the least healthy foods are the cheapest.

CHARLES: There was a reminder of how difficult it could be when I got that corner store in Philadelphia. The Frito-Lay man was already there restocking the shelves.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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