According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 23.5 million people live in food deserts and 14% of American households were food insecure in 2014. The USDA’s definition of a food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low-access (more than a mile in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas) to a super-market or a grocery store. For people living in food deserts, the access to fast foods is often easier especially if they don’t own a car.
The consequences of higher consumption of fast food are higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and overweight cases, all of which eventually lead to higher health costs. Although the obesity rate in Colorado is lower compared to the majority of states in the US (20.7% compared to 27.8% nationwide in 2012), it continues to trend upward. In the city and county of Denver, the percentage of residents meeting the obesity standards was at 18.1% in 2009, and 19 census tracts have been classified as food deserts.
For a more in-depth analysis of the food deserts in Denver you can read this study.
Now, we don’t want to list only gloomy statistics about food deserts and obesity rates in Denver without trying to figure out what can be done and has been done to provide better access to healthier food and lower the number of residents living in food deserts.
Several actions such as expanding nutrition education courses or funding supermarket incentives can enhance food access and lower health risks. Another opportunity, which has been particularly successful in Denver, is the creation of community urban gardens.
The Denver Urban Gardens operates over 145 community Gardens throughout the Denver metropolitan region. This number also includes over 40 school-based community gardens. These school-based gardens offer the chance for both nutrition education for young students and give access to fresh food to kids and their families living in food deserts.
Denver Urban Gardens might well be the largest, but a number of other urban gardens can also be found such as Re:Vision Denver, Green Leaf Denver, Sprout City Farms and last but not least the GrowHaus.
RE:Vision Denver has several interesting initiatives of its own such as the Re:Farm Denver backyard gardening program that has become the largest community-owned food system in the US with over 400 low-income families producing food in their yards and a community-run kitchen – La Cocina – where resident leaders teach families how to prepare the food grown in their gardens.
In addition to the urban gardens and education programs that all of these provide to their communities, there is also Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund with about $20 million in investments available to give grants and loans to investors willing to invest in supermarkets in the food deserts.
Urban gardening and food security are as integral a part of the post-carbon cities of tomorrow as clean transportation, water, and energy, although it is often missed in the broader picture. Finding workable solutions that involve communities will be essential to addressing food security and making the post-carbon cities of tomorrow healthy, active, and sustainable.