When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, I would drive to Dallas six days a week, where I worked in the Oak Cliff neighborhood that I now understand was (and 11 years later still is) a food desert. What used to strike me daily as I drove down Interstate 20, was that the grocery stores and healthy food options that were bountiful near my home became increasingly sparse as I approached the office. One powerful way communities like this are battling food deserts all over the U.S. is by growing their own produce. Besides yielding nutritious vegetables, these urban gardens are paying big dividends in terms of better health, well-being, and even financial benefits.
What Is a Food Desert?
One of the first times that the term "food desert" was recorded being used was in the early 1990s in a Scottish government publication addressing low-income communities. Over the past three decades, the definition of a food desert has evolved. But no matter who you ask, it tends to refer to an area in which access to healthy food, whether that's through farmer's markets or simply grocery stores that carry fresh produce, is slim to none.
Lakeisha Coleman, Ph.D., in her 2018 dissertation for the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University, described food deserts as "areas in which there is relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food and/or areas where such available establishments are separated by great distance making them difficult to access. Lower income, racially segregated neighborhoods have fewer healthy food choices and higher rates of disease related to diet."
However, Anga Sanders, founder and executive director of FEED Oak Cliff, believes that "the term 'food desert' is incorrect, since a desert is a natural phenomenon. Food deserts are not; they are man-made, the inevitable result of numerous negative factors: white and middle-class flight; ineffective or corrupt politicians; racial profiling; zoning problems, and the unchecked encroachment of predatory retail (dollar stores, payday loans, etc.) all contribute to the creation of these desert-like areas."
Far too many families in America, like those in Oak Cliff where I worked, live in communities that are food insecure and/or food deserts. Food insecurity means they don't necessarily know where their next meal is coming from; food desert typically means a lack of actual grocery stores in their area and/or a lack of affordable transportation to places to buy the fresh foods that aren't available in their own neighborhoods. Both of these circumstances lead to a reliance on quick and accessible fast food, which poses multiple problems, both health- and cost-wise.
After all, a fast food meal for one person costs an average of $5-7; that's up to $28 for a family of four, which is more than that family's minimum-wage breadwinner makes in an hour. If you cook at home, on the other hand? It's about $1.50 to $3 per person, a 40-79% savings, and healthier food to boot.
According to Feeding Texas, a network of organizations in Texas fighting for hunger relief, the financial impacts of living in a food desert are far-reaching; families have to make difficult decisions such as choosing between food and utilities on a certain week. Plus, poorly fed children and adults alike can experience health complications that lead to increased medical costs down the line.
Benefits of Growing Healthy Food
Without fresh food available in their neighborhoods, many who live in food deserts are beginning to grow their own via small- and large-scale home and community gardens, and they're seeing the financial, emotional, and community-wide benefits of doing so. For mental health and wellbeing alone, scores of studies confirm that gardening can have a huge positive effect. Charlie Hall, Ph.D., a horticulture and economics specialist at Texas A&M, told AgriLife Today that just being around plants "reduces psychological distress, depression symptoms, clinical anxiety, and mood disorders in adults." Hall added that, at the very least, growing plants can provide a distraction from whatever is causing us stress.
And while growing your own food helps cut out fast food costs, it can cut down your entire grocery bill as well, whether or not you live in a food desert. Families across the country spend a high percentage of their monthly income on grocery shopping; the latest data from the USDA states that a family of four can spend between $599 and $1,370 a month on groceries. And since the U.S. Census statistics that show the median household income as of 2019 is $68,703, that means the average family is spending 10-24% of their annual income on groceries alone. Growing your own food is an economically sound means of subsidizing that grocery bill; seeds for vegetables are inexpensive, and you can even get them free of charge at your local library or seed swaps run by gardening groups.
Community Garden Champions
Who's leading the charge when it comes to former food desert communities growing their own food? Individuals, families, and nonprofit organizations on both a national and local scale. National organizations include the American Community Garden Association and the National Recreation and Parks Association. In my own community, orgs such as the 1Love Unity Garden promise to "address the food desert (illusions) with education, resources, and empowerment," showing young people that healthy food creates healthy minds.
Then there's Paul Quinn's We Over Me Farm, with a mission to transform the health and well-being of under-resourced communities, and Friendship West's The Village Co-Op, which works to enrich the lives of farmers and community residents with its garden and farmer's market. What's happening in my former food desert community in North Texas is just one example of what is happening across the country to address both the inaccessibility and the rising costs of fresh foods.
Where there is one visible garden, there will be more.
In the southern sector of Dallas, where Oak Cliff is located, the need for the community to compensate for the deficit in fresh food has created an ecosystem of advocates who are changing things for the better: Anga Sanders, of FEED Oak Cliff; Ples Montgomery IV, of Oak Cliff Veggie Project; and Fed Up Dallas all have been working to end food apartheid by bringing healthy food choices to southern Dallas.
And where there is one visible garden, there will be more. When you show that growing your own food can be done, more people are encouraged to do it. And in doing so, they're combatting food deserts as well as increasing the health of community members on a mental, physical, emotional, and last but certainly not least, financial level.