Growing your own food changes communities for the better and saves money

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When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, I drove to Dallas six days a week, where I worked in the Oak Cliff neighborhood that I now understand to be (and 11 years later is always) a food desert. What struck me every day as I drove on Interstate 20 was that the grocery stores and healthy food options that were plentiful near my home became increasingly scarce the closer I got to the city. office. A powerful way for communities like this to tackle food deserts across the United States is to grow their own produce. In addition to producing nutritious vegetables, these urban gardens pay big dividends in terms of improved health, well-being and even financial benefits.

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What is a food desert?

One of the first uses of the term ‘food desert’ was recorded in the early 1990s in a Scottish government publication aimed at low-income communities. Over the past three decades, the definition of a food desert has evolved. But no matter who you ask, it tends to refer to an area where access to healthy food, whether through farmers’ markets or just grocery stores that sell fresh produce, is slim, or even non-existent.

Lakeisha Coleman, Ph.D., in her 2018 thesis for the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University, described food deserts as “areas in which access to healthy and affordable food is relatively limited and / or areas where these available establishments are separate. by a great distance, which makes them difficult to access. Low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods have fewer healthy food choices and higher rates of food-related illnesses. “

However, Anga Sanders, Founder and Executive Director of FEED Oak Cliff, believes that “the term ‘food desert’ is incorrect, because a desert is a natural phenomenon. Food deserts are not; they are man-made, the inevitable result of many negative factors: flight of whites and middle classes; inefficient or corrupt politicians; racial profiling; Zoning issues and uncontrolled encroachment of predatory retail (dollar stores, payday loans, etc.) all contribute to the creation of these desert areas. “

Far too many families in America, like those in Oak Cliff where I worked, live in communities of food insecurity and / or food deserts. Food insecurity means they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from; The food desert usually means a lack of actual grocery stores in their area and / or a lack of affordable transportation to places to buy fresh food that is not available in their own neighborhood. These two circumstances lead to a dependence on fast and accessible fast food, which poses multiple problems, both in terms of health and cost.

Related: How to donate food from your garden to a local pantry

After all, a fast food meal for one person costs an average of $ 5-7; that’s up to $ 28 for a family of four, which is more than the minimum wage breadwinner earns in an hour. If you cook at home, though? That’s about $ 1.50 to $ 3 per person, a 40-79% savings, and healthier food to boot.

According to Feeding Texas, a network of Texan organizations fighting to fight hunger, the financial impacts of living in a food desert are considerable; families have to make tough decisions such as choosing between food and utilities on a certain week. Additionally, malnourished children and adults can experience health complications that drive up medical costs across the board.

Benefits of growing healthy foods

Without fresh food available in their neighborhood, many of those living in food deserts begin to cultivate theirs through small and large-scale home and community gardens, and they see the financial, emotional and community benefits. . For mental health and wellness alone, dozens of studies confirm that gardening can have a huge positive effect. Charlie Hall, Ph.D., a horticultural and economics specialist at Texas A&M, told AgriLife Today that just being around plants “reduces psychological distress, symptoms of depression, Clinical anxiety and mood disorders in adults “. Hall added that at the very least, growing plants can distract us from anything that causes us stress.

And while growing your own food helps keep fast food costs down, it can also lower your grocery bill whether or not you live in a food desert. Families across the country spend a high percentage of their monthly income on groceries; the latest USDA data indicates that a family of four can spend between $ 599 and $ 1,370 per month on groceries. And since U.S. Census statistics that show the median household income in 2019 is $ 68,703, that means the average family spends 10-24% of their annual income just on groceries. Growing your own food is an economically sound way to subsidize that grocery bill; vegetable seeds are inexpensive and you can even get them for free from your local library or from seed exchanges organized by gardening groups.

Community garden champions

Who is leading the charge when it comes to the ancient food desert communities that grow their own food? Individuals, families and non-profit organizations nationally and locally. National organizations include the American Community Garden Association and the National Recreation and Parks Association. In my own community, organizations like 1Love Unity Garden promise to “tackle the food desert (illusions) with education, resources and empowerment,” showing young people that healthy eating creates healthy minds.

Then there’s Paul Quinn’s We Over Me Farm, whose mission is to transform the health and well-being of underprivileged communities, and Friendship West’s The Village Co-Op, which works to enrich the lives of farmers and communities. residents of the community with its garden and farmers market. What’s happening in my old desert food community in North Texas is just one example of what’s happening across the country to tackle both the inaccessibility and rising costs of fresh food.

Where there is a visible garden, there will be more.

In the South Dallas area, where Oak Cliff is located, the community’s need to make up for the shortage of fresh foods has created an ecosystem of advocates who are making a difference for the better: Anga Sanders of FEED Oak Cliff; Ples Montgomery IV, of the Oak Cliff Veggie Project; and Fed Up Dallas have all worked to end food apartheid by providing healthy food choices in South Dallas.

And where there is a visible garden, there will be more. When you show that it is possible to grow your own food, more people are encouraged to do so. And in doing so, they combat food deserts and improve the health of community members mentally, physically, emotionally and, last but not least, financially.


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