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Food deserts limit access to healthy foods for low-income people

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The King Soopers on Hancock Expressway and Academy Boulevard lies within a low-income, low-access (LILA) neighborhood, according to the U.S. Economic Research Service’s Food Access Research Atlas. According to a Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services map based on U.S Census estimates from 2008-2012, that’s also an area densely populated by blacks and Latinos.

Imagine living a few miles from this store and having to traverse that highway-style intersection on foot to get there, because you have no car. When you finally arrive, the produce section is drab — the fruits and veggies aren’t as varied or enticing as the ones at the big King Soopers at Uintah Gardens, with its vast array of organic, farm-fresh selections. You probably wouldn’t know because it’s hard enough getting two miles down the street, let alone across town.

While you’re picking your produce, keeping in mind those daily recommendations for fruits and veggies, you also must consider that your budget is tight and these groceries need to last the rest of the month. So you start to look for some staples, things to get you through, things you can buy for a $1.50 or less per meal. Then, you head back across the street with bags in tow, racing to get your frozen Totino’s pizzas in the freezer before they thaw. If you are elderly, or a person with a disability, well, talk about a hard situation made even harder.

A food desert is an area or region where access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods is severely limited or nonexistent. These deserts are typically heavily populated by low-income and minority people. Simply put, it’s living in a food environment that may be calorie-dense but devoid of nourishment. Food that fills your belly but starves your cells.

How much does it really cost to be hungry? While other factors likely also weigh in, according to soon-to-be-published data from Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, the Colorado Springs life expectancy gap between the area with the lowest concentration of poverty, in this case, north Springs, and the area with the highest concentration of poverty, south Springs, is 16.1 years. Largely, this points to the health disparities between blacks/Hispanics and affluent whites, though poor whites are also affected. In addition to life expectancy, these disparities show up statistically in health, academic performance, job opportunities and physical stamina.
According to the El Paso County Department of Human Services, the county directed more than $107 million to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) in 2016 (most of the funding comes from federal and state coffers). That spending has been dropping this year in the county, which may seem to indicate better economic times. But those still reliant on food stamps continue to struggle, since the stipends aren’t intended to cover an entire grocery bill.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, an organization that networks food pantries across the state and advocates against policies that create barriers to access, food stamps provided to eligible families average only about $1.40 per person per meal — hardly enough for a healthy meal. But when someone receives food stamps, it’s usually because their budget is already maxed out, and there is no additional money available to purchase food.

From farm to table, the disparities and gaps in the food system negatively impact agriculture workers, the poor, minorities, seniors and women — people who can’t always afford to buy the food they need because their income does not cover their expenses. Moreover, negative health and social outcomes result from perpetual malnourishment. The bottom line is that quality and nutrient-dense food is a non-negotiable requirement of our biology, rich or poor, and not all people have enough money to buy the food they need to survive. It’s a form of chemical warfare, and the poor pay the biggest cost.

As the poverty gap widens in our city, decent living wages for the working class — in conjunction with adequate social safety nets for those, such as seniors, who are unable to put in 40-plus hours of work every week — is imperative to begin bridging a path out of poverty and negative health outcomes. Access to fresh and healthy foods, with an eye on affordability, is necessary to increase consumption. Utilizing vacant land spaces in LILA neighborhoods to create low-cost community-driven solutions to hunger, such as community gardens, will begin to pave the path toward food sovereignty.

Disclosure: Patience Kabwasa is the program director for Colorado Springs Food Rescue.

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