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Jettie’s Story: My Life in a Food Desert

 

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Did you know that June is Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month? To celebrate the occasion, we want to introduce you to Jettie Young, who volunteers at Hornsby-Dunlap Elementary School and lives in the surrounding community, which is a food desert just outside of Austin. Jettie explains: What does living in a food desert really feel like?

 

When we began looking for a house, the Hornsby Bend area was on our radar because of affordability. I loved that we could walk to a river park down the street and, although the house needed some work, the yard was large enough for a garden and our youngest son was excited about the prospect of a sprinkler in the summer. Considering that previously we had only been able to afford a small apartment in Central Austin, the prospect of a home with a yard (yay!) was so exciting.

 

We knew that moving out of the “city” would come with compromises. At the time, we lived close to one of the major developments in Austin, so groceries, doctors, anything… all within two miles, most within one. My husband and I were prepared to make changes but the truth is, after looking for months, there was not a neighborhood in Austin that came close to being affordable with the same community feeling as ours.

 

Our community is primarily made of families with pre-k to middle school aged children, with engaged, dynamic parents in all fields. We have an amazing elementary school with one of the most dedicated staff I have ever seen. Every day, because I am fortunate enough to be able to walk my son to school, we are greeted by the same cheerful crossing guard, rain or shine. The playground is open to the community, and we have parks and fields available within walking distance.

 

My son walking to school at sunrise.

In our community, there are two small markets, both family-owned, a bakery-deli, an eat-in restaurant, two dollar stores, and two convenience stores.

 

And… we live in a food desert.

 

The Hornsby Bend area is approximately seven miles from downtown Austin on FM 973, about nine miles from the nearest major retail grocery store. I know, that doesn’t sound like very far, and, most of the time, it isn’t…in a car, or on a bike, or by bus.

 

But there is no regular bus route in this area, and anyone familiar with FM 973 will understand when I say that it is not a safe roadway for average cyclists on a daily basis. The speed limit is 55 mph, traveled by large trucks and delivery vehicles, and there is just so much traffic. Even with the best visibility, skill, and luck, the space for the everyday cyclist is not there and the idea of a child riding a bike anywhere near FM 973 is a frightening one.

 

Traffic in and out of the neighborhood can be daunting. In the morning, that trip to the grocery store could take an hour. In the evening, if there is construction, or rain, or an accident, you can count on it taking longer than that. And that is for those who have vehicles. Many families are one-car, which means that vehicle access is usually limited to a few days a week or hours in the day.

 

Kids leaving school who need to walk to buy food have three choices. Stay on the side with the dollar store, run across the busy street with the blind curve to go to the convenience store, or cross FM 973 to get to the markets. Most opt for the dollar store, filled with processed food, candy, and sugar-filled drinks.

 

Adults who can travel to the two family-owned stores have a few more choices in what they can buy, but they, too, are limited by what is available and affordable. The markets are small, and the produce is simply what the owners can purchase with limited buying power. The prices can be twice as much or more on some things, like grapes or strawberries, if they are even in stock, and many produce items are not available at all. Because of the higher prices and low turnover, produce is often less fresh and spoils quickly. I have learned to buy one or two days’ worth of fresh food at a time to avoid spoilage, when I shop in the neighborhood stores. I am a big fan of frozen fruit and vegetables, especially when our budget is tight, but that is not an affordable option either, because of limited selection and high prices.

 

Having a home garden in this community is not a choice for most families because of the exorbitant water prices. For our family of four, with newer energy efficient appliances, and definitely watching household water consumption, our monthly bill easily reaches $200 and more. We did not have an outdoor garden until this year, when I was able to properly use rainwater without harboring mosquitoes, and our youngest son didn’t ever get that sprinkler!

 

The issue, and this is just how I see it, is simple, although it has a few layers to work through first (like onions, which, incidentally, are incredibly high in antioxidants, so some layers can be a good thing).

 

Our community is filled with hard-working families, many of them struggling with food security issues. Compounding the problem is the increasing availability of cheap, processed food filled with sugar, salt, and artificial ingredients. The stores in our neighborhood have higher prices and less variety because they simply aren’t able to compete with the big buying power of the stores that many of the residents in areas like this one can’t even get to on any given day.

 

Child obesity rates are going up in Texas (State of Obesity, 2014), and median intake for fruits and vegetables for adolescents in Texas is 1 each per day (CDC, 2013). All of these things seem to go hand in hand. If the fresh food is more expensive and less accessible, people will instead eat what they can afford and what they can access. That’s just survival.

 

But, the solution seems simple, too. At least to me. Put the food in the stores so people can buy it.

 

With the help of AmeriCorps and 4H, Nourish U, resources from Sunshine Community Garden and The Sustainable Food Center of Austin, we were able to work with elementary students on simple food preparation, taste testing, and further education on the dangers of excess sugar consumption. (Check out Hornsby-Dunlap Elementary's video, "The Sweet Tooth Saga," here!) The school garden is flourishing through the work of parents, teachers, and students and the classes were able to harvest a few vegetables this past semester. We will bring in a few more over the summer and fall, but it’s not going to be enough to feed the neighborhood.

 

Students harvesting vegetables at their school garden, and learning about healthy foods. They are hopeful for more fruits and veggies in their neighborhood!

So, in areas like this, and anywhere kids are starting to make food decisions that shape their health, and in the places where they actually do go to neighborhood stores and shop for their families, making fresh food an easy, affordable choice seems like a no-brainer. If we remove the burden of having to choose between healthy food and affordable food, the health benefits in stress reduction alone will prove worthy of the effort.

If we get the food into the stores, families are healthier, communities are stronger, and small businesses are more successful. With help from grocery store and corner store initiatives to increase access to healthy food in communities like Hornsby Bend, that can happen, and all of us will be better for it. When we act on something as crucial as childhood obesity with something as simple as accessible healthy food in community stores, everybody wins.

 

 


References:

CDC. (2013). State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State of Obesity. (2014). Retrieved from State of Obesity: http://stateofobesity.org/states/tx/

 


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