Denver, Politics

Denver's 'food desert' mirage: the road to health is paved with good intentions

As part of her Let’s Move campaign, Michelle Obama recently stated, “Treats are one of the best parts of being a kid.” A couple years ago I met some first graders who would agree.

In a loud and chaotic Bronx public school cafeteria I sat next to one my students who had her newly mandated healthy federal school lunch in front of her. She wouldn’t touch it. Instead she pulled out a black plastic bag from under the table, put her finger in front of her mouth, told me not to tell, and showed me her Hot Cheetos. Later, she took her banana from the school lunch and smashed it against the stairs.

The federal government has issued mandates to provide healthy food options for citizens. However, it is not having the expected impact. That first grader gave me some insight in to the food issues of today. Even when a subsidized and nutritious lunch was given to her, she arrived at school early to spend her own money at the convenience store across the street. Although this 6-year-old did not realize it, she was making a political statement with that purchase.

The term food deserts has garnered more awareness within the past few years. The USDA defines the term as areas “without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” Essentially, a low-income person living in an area with minimal access to fruits and vegetables is considered to be living in a food desert. This definition presents two problems to address: transportation and affordability.

icon_op_edA closer look at the reality of food deserts in Denver quickly reveals little more than a mirage. Numerous studies show that transportation is not a barrier for those with low income, and that personal preferences often trump financial deterrents. It is clear that the options for healthy food are more than adequate and available. Diets are driven by personal preference, not by proximity of produce and price.

Many definitions of food deserts refer to “areas” without “access” to affordable healthy food. This vague measurement no doubt fogs up the accuracy of food desert maps. Various definitions each come with their own measurements, ranging from half a mile to what can be reached in a 10-minute walk. The most common standard in urban settings is a store being less than a mile away from the home.

Nonetheless, access is a pertinent issue when looking to address food deserts. Some advocates propose increased bus routes to grocery stores and markets.However, increased public transportation does not necessarily offer the solution. Additional bus routes do not provide convenience. They often include walks to a centralized bus stop, another restrictive aspect that may discourage families.

Vehicles do not seem to be such an overwhelming barrier. The USDA recently released a study that shows 93 percent of low-income people who have low access to healthy food do their shopping by vehicle. This number remains at a steady 65 percent, even when a grocery store is within walking distance.

The USDA’s online Food Access Research Atlas shows that, averaged out across Denver’s 24 “food deserts,” only 14 percent of residents without a vehicle live more than half a mile from a supermarket. Since some definitions of food deserts put grocery stores at a mile or more away, this decreases the percentage even further.

Lack of access is a problem for only a small portion of the population. The overwhelming majority of low-income citizens do their grocery shopping by car. Even if one does not live within a mile of a grocery store, chances are that their place of work or their commute route includes proximity to a grocery store. People change locations throughout the day and with it, their proximity to markets and availability. The third strike against transportation is the option to have food delivered, bringing food right to the kitchen table.

Many large-scale grocery chains such as Safeway, Wal Mart, and even Amazon already offer this service, and smaller groups are beginning to do the same.

In Seattle, AmazonFresh offers same-day delivery or zero delivery fees if the order reaches over $35. Some groups specialize in solely delivering fruits and vegetables, and some cater specifically to the Denver neighborhoods listed as food deserts by the USDA.

Food delivery service increases the potential for greater sustainability. According to research by the University of Washington, one large truck delivering groceries to twenty houses has significantly less of an impact on the environment than twenty cars driving to and from super markets.

At the top of any food desert related policy recommendations should be knocking down barriers to entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities to address the issue of access through food delivery services.

Sustainability also comes into play when examining Denver’s desire to shift towards more food localization. Localization works to minimize the distance from the food producer to the consumer, thus also working to bring an end to food deserts.

However, the World Watch Institute has conducted studies showing that this comes with the likely increase of carbon emissions. When spread across the city for localization purposes, food farms emit more greenhouse gases than one large and centralized operation. When raised in a factory farm, cattle and chickens have far less of an impact on the environment.

Furthermore, it is important to investigate whether closer grocery stores would in fact change diet and lessen obesity.  A recent national study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine examined the relationship between children and their diet. The conclusion highlighted no connection between a person’s body weight and what was within a mile and a half of his or her home. Studies also have shown that fruit and vegetable intake holds no correlation to the accessibility of grocery stores.

Big chain grocery stores are not the only source of fresh and healthy food. When gathering food desert data, many small corner shops are overlooked. As sources of healthy food, these shops can drastically alter how big of a problem some may claim food deserts to be. Any Google Maps search will show that these corner store markets litter the neighborhoods of Denver.

Many fight the promotion of corner stores providing produce, stating that it is often old. However, if produce was indeed such a desired commodity, it would not sit on the shelf long enough to get old. Stores sell what is demanded and desired by customers. If fresh fruit and produce were in high demand, smaller corner stores would bountifully supply them in the name of common business sense. Corner markets have the ability to address the issue, and many have tried. However, tried and true methods have shown little demand for healthy food. Thus, it is met with not much supply.

Suppose that access and transportation were not an issue. We must then focus on the struggle of low-income citizens seeking affordable food when the price of healthy food becomes a barrier. It is evident entering a grocery store that a 10-pack of Ramen Noodles is cheaper than a few ounces of raspberries.

In the documentary Food Stamped, a couple seeks to spend one week eating healthy while living on a food stamp budget. At the conclusion of the film, the couple visits a nutritionist to learn that although they had been eating well, the couple was not consuming enough calories to sustain a healthy weight. The film gives insight into another reason for choosing unhealthy foods with a higher amount of calories. When trying to stretch a budget it makes sense to get the most bang for your buck. Although it may not be survival of the fittest, it certainly is a form of survival.

The option for lower-priced food most certainly would help, but is not the end-all solution. The National School Lunch Program provides schools with lower-priced healthy food, yet there are numerous accounts of students throwing away these meals simply because they do not like the taste.

The root of the issue is personal preference and attitude.

Denmark enacted a high tax on fatty foods to discourage citizens from buying and consuming unhealthy food in hopes of promoting nutritious options. Citizens were so driven to have their sweet tooth satiated that they traveled to Germany and Sweden to find their treats—similar to my Hot Cheetos-smuggling friend.

Ultimately, the goal of ensuring healthy and affordable food lies within easy access. The key is to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity. According to the numbers, the real trouble lies with personal preference. Nonetheless, the most imperative matter is working to increase personal desire for preparing, cooking, and consuming healthy food. More grocery stores and bus routes will not change obesity. Personal preference, education, and motivation will, because desire ultimately drives diet.

Colorado native Alejandra Jimenez is a recent graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.  She can be reached at

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