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Enterprise: Fighting the Food Desert

Rapid business and residential developments have built Phoenix, Arizona into a gem of a metropolis, making it easy to forget it is situated at the heart of the Sonoran Desert. That is, if one is not looking for fresh produce.

The quest for easily accessible fresh fruits and vegetables puts into perspective the vast emptiness of Phoenix, defining the city not just as a desert, but a “food desert.”

A food desert is considered a low-income area with low access to grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is a term applied to a statewide and national issue. At least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must live over a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and over 10 miles in rural areas to be categorized as a low-access community.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over one in 10 Arizonans lives in a “food desert,” which far exceeds the national average.

“There just isn’t a lot of access,” said Elyse Guidas, director of operations of The Fresh Express. “There aren’t many places people can go to get food, and if you don’t have a car, you know how difficult it is to get up to the grocery store for fresh food.”

The Fresh Express is a non-profit mobile market project in collaboration with a non-profit organization, The Discovery Triangle Development Corporation, dedicated to helping end Phoenix’s food desert status.

“The ‘discovery triangle’ is actually a region that stretches from downtown Phoenix to downtown Tempe and up into Papago,” Guidas explained. “It’s a very asset rich area. It’s got a light-rail, several major universities, the international airport, but it is devoid of food.”

Guidas said that with this particular area of Arizona in mind, The Discovery Triangle Development Corporation began visiting other mobile markets around the country. A list of what did and did not work was drawn up and then the heads of The Discover Triangle reached out to their contacts in the Phoenix community.

“Both the City of Phoenix and the City of Tempe have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Discovery Triangle since its inception,” Alisa Lyons, project director at The Discovery Triangle Development Corporation, explained. “We are working together on multiple fronts, and marrying community and economic development efforts in a strategic way to improve the lives of residents.”

Lyons said that through partners and contacts in the city, the Discovery Triangle was able to get a retired City of Phoenix bus donated to the Fresh Express group. The bus was transformed into a mobile marketplace, complete with shelves lining the interior where seats would be. It drives around the Discovery Triangle Area and makes regular, weekly stops at locations in need, Guidas explained. Amongst some of the stops are elementary schools and senior centers, as well as some of Arizona State University’s campuses.

“We really hit a whole spectrum,” Guidas said. “But it’s especially nice for parents who can rely on us being there weekly or biweekly, and not have to go to the grocery store. We’re saving them gas money and we’re saving them cost because we’re cheaper than the grocery store.”

According to Guidas, the reason the Fresh Express’s produce prices are so low is because they go straight to a distributor, cutting out the middleman. This benefits the community, Guidas said, by not only providing fresh, affordable produce, but through supporting a local producer and distributor, Peddler’s Son Produce.

The family owned company, which is expected to begin operating out of a new facility on E Jackson street in November, has been providing fresh fruit and vegetables to Arizona communities since 1998.

Peddler’s Son Produce Marketing Coordinator, Jonah Dollison, said the company distributes Grade A/ #1 produce to a variety of retail and foodservice establishments throughout Arizona. When Discovery Triangle approached them with the idea of a mobile market, Dollison said they jumped at the opportunity to support something they believe in.

“The Fresh Express is important because it’s creating an awareness of the situation surrounding the area’s food desert,” Dollison said. “The ability to actively provide the community with the healthy dietary choices they promote at a convenience significantly enhances this message.”

Peddler’s Son Produce delivers to the Fresh Express three to four times a week, Dollison said, and the produce is dependent upon the season and supply.

“The partnership has been great,” Guidas said. “It’s really beneficial so we can keep our prices low for those areas where income and money is a huge issue and that way people have equal access to food without having to worry about it breaking the bank.”

Another group working to help provide the Phoenix area with healthier foods is the Phoenix Public Market located on N Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Established in 2005, the Phoenix Public Market has anywhere from 60 to 100 vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, home-made gelato, seasonings, sauces and more.

“We’re one of the longest and biggest markets in the valley, and we’re one of the few that stays open year-round ” Samantha Jackson, Phoenix Market Manager, said. “We’ve got three major farms, a few refugee farmers, and we have a community exchange table where members of the community can bring their excess produce from their gardens to the table and they’ll sell it on their behalf.”

Jackson said one of the biggest things the market tries to do is educate people on where their food comes from and why it’s better to buy locally. The marketplace is a mechanism that helps feed people in the downtown area, Jackson said.

“We’re trying to meet a need there,” Jackson said. “But we’re also trying to teach people about food and where your food comes from and why it’s important to pay attention to that.”

This concern is one shared by Peddler’s Son and the Fresh Express. According to Dollison, education about healthier eating and how to incorporate into one’s life is key.

“It requires both the city and the community to actively participate,” Dollison said. “The city’s ability to continue developing further resources and education materials will likely increase the community’s willingness to listen and urgency to change dietary habits.”

A mobile market like The Fresh Express is able to help educate the community, too, starting especially with younger children, according to Guidas. Some children in the community cannot tell a part pears and apples, Guidas said, while others are not aware of what seasons mean when trying to grow different foods.

“We provide that educational component that a lot of people in low-income areas now have access to,” Guidas explained. “We go to elementary schools, and we can really spend the time with our customers and explain why it’s important to eat these foods.”

Guidas said she feels that organizations like mobile markets and farmer’s markets offer more than a grocery store, mainly because of the education offered about the food, which makes a large impact on lifestyles.

“You could have a grocery store right next door,” Guidas said. “But people aren’t just going to start shopping there ‘just because.’ We can really bring back the benefit and the value of what it is to eat fresh, healthy foods.”

At the Phoenix Public Market, Jackson said a plan in the works involves teaching patrons how to grow their own food.

“How to grow vertical gardens or using a plot at a community garden, things like that we’re hoping to start to teach,” Jackson said. “The produce at our market usually lasts longer than it typically does from a grocery store.”

Jackson explained that, eventually, people learn to shop small and waste less food. If individuals frequent the marketplace a few times in one week, replenishing only on what it is needed, less produce is thrown out.

Conversations of more grocery stores opening in areas that are easily accessible to communities relying on public transportation or bicycles have been had, according to Jackson, but companies repeatedly backed away.

“You’ve got to reach this certain threshold before they’ll bring in this corporate level retail,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to have this critical mass of people before they consider opening stuff.”

Considering the growing population of downtown Phoenix, partially due to ASU’s growing downtown Phoenix campus, the opening of a grocery may be in the future. However, Guidas said the food desert status of Phoenix is too pressing of an issue to wait.

“We need something, and we’re not going to wait around for a grocery store,” Guidas said. “A grocery store would be perfect, but I don’t think that people are willing to wait around to be healthy and I don’t think that people who don’t have the means to travel further should have to wait.”

While the leading organizations in the fight against Phoenix’s food desert status commend the city of Phoenix’s active participation, there is still a great deal to be done, according to Dollison.

“The concept of food deserts is still fairly new,” Dollison remarked. “Given the number of those impacted there is an extraordinary amount of work yet to be done, of which we believe our city is capable of confronting.”

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