Food insecurity is a term that is thrown around quite a bit these days within organic food and food justice circles. In many low-income, urban neighborhoods across the country, there is little or no access to fresh, healthy food. This is called “food insecurity,” and People’s Grocery, a non-profit in Oakland, California, is working to combat it.
In neighborhoods experiencing food insecurity, frequently referred to as “food deserts,” there is often no grocery store within a reasonable distance. The grocery stores in neighboring towns and cities are likely to be difficult to reach for those relying on public transportation. Most residents of food deserts must purchase their groceries from corner stores or convenience stores. The variety of food at these stores is very limited, and what is available is largely processed, packaged food, as opposed to fresh, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Convenience stores tend to be much more expensive than grocery stores, as well. The Life Sciences Research Office of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology defines food security as:
Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy
lifestyle that includes at a minimum: (1 ) the ready availability
of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) the assured ability to
acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (e.g., without
resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, and
other coping strategies.
How Did We Get Here?
A number of historical factors have contributed to the rise of food deserts and food insecurity. A major factor is the shift in the grocery industry away from small, local grocery stores and toward large, corporate supermarkets. This shift took place largely in the 1970′s and early 1980′s.
As a result of this shift, grocery stores fled urban neighborhoods in favor of suburban areas, where large tracts of land were plentiful and less expensive and customers were likely to be wealthier.
In West Oakland, food insecurity has been a problem since at least the 1960′s. In 1957, construction of the Cypress Freeway bisected the neighborhood, jeopardizing local businesses and causing many business owners and residents to move from West Oakland to the suburbs. The construction of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) over West Oakland’s commercial district during the first half of the 1960′s discouraged commerce and caused many to flee the neighborhood, as well. The negative impact of the shift toward corporate supermarkets was exacerbated in West Oakland by these preexisting conditions.
How is People’s Grocery addressing food insecurity in West Oakland? Through a number of programs. Their Grub Box provides organic food – grown locally at an organic, urban farm behind the California Hotel, and Dig Deep Farms – at a reasonable price to local residents. They partner with Oakland’s Highland Hospital to provide Grub Boxes and educational resources to underage patients and their families. And the Growing Justice Institute trains local residents to become business and community leaders and to work to achieve food security in West Oakland. Around the country, organizations like People’s Grocery are stepping up to make a difference in local food systems.