A Tale of Two Food Deserts

North Clark County, Wash., is dotted with small towns and farms. Produce thrives here: beans, greens, berries and grains are plentiful. But behind this abundance lurks food insecurity among the county’s most vulnerable — 17 percent of adults and 28 percent of the county’s children don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Clark County has emergency meal sites and brick-and-mortar food bank locations, but many at-risk residents in this rural county either don’t have access to transportation or simply can’t afford the gas to drive 15 to 50 miles round-trip to a food bank. Enter the Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, a 17-foot trailer that each Sunday pulls into various locations in the  underserved areas of Clark County.

Inside, the trailer is set up like a grocery store aisle with food and personal care items lining both sides. Clients choose among fresh produce, dry goods, tomato sauce, beans, frozen meat and dairy, in addition to a selection of recipes to help them put together nutritious meals. The trailer serves approximately 110 households monthly.

“Our clients are from all walks of life,” says Candice Howell, Lewis River Mobile Food Bank board president and volunteer.  “They are employed, unemployed, homeless and all ages. Hunger does not discriminate. For some [clients], the only way they get to our mobile unit is by walking. We bring the food closer to them, trying to ease the double burden of hunger and poverty.”

A Tale of Two Deserts

Two thousand miles east, one in six people in Chicago is food insecure; in some neighborhoods, it’s one in three. More than 380,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts where fresh groceries are spare, though there may be plenty of fast food around the corner.

Bettina Tahsin, RD, LDN, CDE, diabetes educator at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, works closely with groups in two of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods to teach good nutrition and healthful living. Tahsin often finds that it’s not that her clients don’t want to eat healthfully, but that they don’t have access to a market or store that sells fruits and vegetables.

“It’s difficult to help people lose weight and manage chronic conditions like diabetes if they don’t have reliable access to fresh food,” says Tahsin. “Patients will say, ‘All I have left in my kitchen is a whole bunch of carbs. So what do I do?’”

A Tale of Two Food Deserts

One successful solution is the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Producemobile program, which served 200,000 individuals last year alone. Each month, the brightly colored trucks make 50 regular stops to areas with high rates of food insecurity, where a team of volunteers unloads the truck and sets up tables for “choice-style distribution,” in which clients can select
the foods they want to take.

“It’s been a really successful program,” says GCFD Director of Communications Jim Conwell. “Often, sites will have 250 to 400 people come to a single distribution site to receive fruits and vegetables at no cost.”

In fact, because Producemobiles have helped the GCFD increase the amount of produce distributed across Cook County, fresh fruits and vegetables now make up a third of the total food the agency disperses.

From his position in the Mayor’s Office, City of Chicago Policy Director Mike Simmons sees all the tendrils of aid and effort that reach into Chicago’s food deserts and provide hunger relief. “A lot of [mobile food programs] have either been really
successful or are poised to be even more successful, but have not yet been scaled up,” says Simmons. “We’re watching a lot of these programs very closely. As they start to demonstrate success, [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] is very committed to getting behind innovative approaches to social problems like this and to making these programs sustainable over time.”

For now, mobile food distribution programs from urban Illinois to rural Washington rely heavily on donations, volunteers and community support to operate the programs and spread the word to the food insecure. In Chicago, volunteers give time
and manpower to the cause, while in North Clark County, food and non-food personal care items are donated by local churches, businesses and gardeners who share their abundance or plant extra rows of produce to donate.

“The response from [the North Clark County] community and surrounding communities has been positive,” says Howell. “It is neighbors helping neighbors, churches with food barrels and community-wide ‘walk and knocks.’ We get numerous calls [from people] asking how they can help or saying that they collected food and [asking], ‘How can we get it to you?’”

Erin Sund
Erin Sund was an editor with Food & Nutrition Magazine.