Food Deserts – Fort Worth Weekly
The scene didn’t look like the picturesque pictures the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau put on billboards. Several dozen people with IDs stood in line at an open air facility near a row of retail stores on Cherry Street in West Fort Worth. When each person’s name was checked off, they were given a shopping cart and two cardboard boxes. The men, women and children filled themselves with donated fruit, vegetables and poultry.
It was no coincidence that the directors of Tarrant Area Food Bank chose White Settlement. The drop-off point is in a 16 square mile food wasteland, a US Department of Agriculture designation for rural or urban areas whose residents do not have easy access to “fresh, healthy, affordable food.”
Ava Lane, a middle-aged African American woman who works full-time as a security officer, said the donations fill a void. Even if families have money, she said, their community might not have a grocery store, forcing them to travel miles away, often by bus.
“My son has seven children,” she said. “So I go to these food banks because they lack fresh food. The babies need to eat the right foods. “
Any excess she has goes to her older neighbors who no longer drive, she added.
Christi Durko, a West Freeway Church of Christ volunteer who signed up in Lane and others, said the products will help replace the processed foods that have already caused public health problems.
“Many of these people have diabetes,” she said. “Much of the food that people on lower incomes can afford are high in sugar. These people want to get well. “
The Tarrant Area Food Bank’s mobile pantry program delivers fresh produce to the Fort Worth food deserts. Photo by Kayla Stigall.
According to the Food Bank, an estimated 280,000 Fort Worth people live in a food wasteland. The demographic trend is low income, which means that many of the people here are faced with two worrying choices: take a bus several miles for a few bags of produce, or buy mostly processed groceries from convenience stores. The first option is prohibitive in terms of time and the second option has significant health implications for a population, the majority of which cannot afford adequate health insurance.
Food Bank’s nutrition manager Micheline Hynes has made the ramifications of livelihood on gas station food clear.
Highly processed, packaged foods, she said, are generally loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and calories. In addition to obesity, these elements can often lead to “diabetes and cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes”.
The problem isn’t new, but city officials, nonprofits, and private companies are once again making efforts to shrink Fort Worth’s vast food wastes.
The focus is in part on a 2012 USDA study that systematically mapped the food shortage areas in Fort Worth. Nonprofits like the Tarrant Area Food Bank have been at the heart of it for decades, visiting local areas of shortage of food and distributing surplus produce donated by supermarkets.
A recent boost in the effort came last year with the arrival of Blue Zones Projects, a national program offered by Healthways, a not-for-profit wellness company headquartered in Franklin, Tennessee. Blue Zones’ largest funder is Texas Health Resources, a nonprofit that operates a network of hospitals and care facilities in North Texas. Blue Zones has been committed to improving health outcomes here through health and active living projects for four years.
The Blue Zones’ signature baby blue logo and hook-like mottos have many city officials and restaurant owners screaming at each other to appear on the healthy eating train. Blue Zones employees oversee several projects, including the coveted award of Blue Zones certification, a kind of boasting right for companies who can fulfill a checklist of healthy eating recommendations – for example, a check mark requires eliminating the free refills of sugary beverages. But it is the Group’s proposed changes to the Fort Worth policy regarding mobile produce carts and community gardens that can have the greatest impact on the Fort Worth food deserts.
And Blue Zones doesn’t work alone.
Several local nonprofits work, directly or in concert with Blue Zones’ efforts, to address complex issues, from lack of public transportation to restrictive city regulations, disenfranchised local farmers, and food waste.
“We assume that everyone with a car is mobile and always has gas money,” said Barbara Ewan, director of food programs at the Food Bank. “There are a lot of people who have to work really hard to get healthy food.”
Ewen said the mobile pantry program in White Settlement and elsewhere allows her nonprofit to send donated food straight to the deserts. The contributions consist mainly of what is lacking in low-income areas – fresh fruits and vegetables. From her office north on West 7th Street, she closely follows the ever-changing boundaries of low-access food areas.
In 2014, Fort Worth ranked 36th among the 51 largest cities in the United States, according to environmental research blog Grist. While 72 percent of New York City residents can walk to fresh groceries within five minutes, only 8 percent of Fort Worth residents do.
“There is an economic cost to not eating well, which everyone should be interested in because we end up paying for it through the health system,” Ewen said. “The rise in diabetes and heart problems is related to diet. There is a burden on society when people are chronically ill. “
The Food Bank has a “War Room”: a wall with several cards. Ewen selected a small red square in south Fort Worth, west of I-35.
“It’s moving,” she said. “Either the poverty rate has risen or the shops have closed.”
Poverty, race, single parents – all the most damaging factors in low-income areas – are the hallmarks of food deserts, she said.