Increasing Access to Fresh Fruits and Veggies in Memphis

We are excited to announce that we just received our 501 (c) (3) status, officially classifying Bring It Food Hub as a public charity in Memphis! This classification is especially exciting for our organization because it allows us to better fulfill our mission of increasing access to fresh, local food in underserved Memphis communities. While many of us have the opportunity to choose what we want to eat on a daily basis, eating fresh produce one day and a delicious cheeseburger the next, there is another quite large population in the United States and in Memphis that cannot. Many areas in urban cities have very little to no food access and are left with products from convenience stores, gas stations or fast food chains. These areas with severely limited food options are known as food deserts and are a growing issue in the Mid-South.

The USDA defines a food desert as an urban neighborhood or rural town “without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food,” and many times without a vehicle. While it may seem like an uncommon problem to most of us, the USDA estimates that 23.5 million people in the United States are living in these conditions. If you look at the  map below, you can see that the Mid-South area has one of the highest concentrations of these food deserts in the country (note the dark red and black areas on the map, representing communities with between 5- 10% of its population living in a food desert.)

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When you look at Memphis in particular, the situation becomes even more complicated. Memphis is one of the poorest cities in the country, with an overall poverty rate of approximately 28%, and in areas of South Memphis that number can get even higher. Memphis is also one of the most obese cities in the nation, with an obesity rate of over 30%. Poverty and obesity lead to an increased risk of health risks and diseases, and these issues are becoming increasingly evident in our community. Approximately 12.4% of our residents have been diagnosed with diabetes, and heart disease and stroke are currently the number one and three leading causes of death and disability in TN. Research has shown that there are strong links between poverty, limited food access and obesity that all lead to poor health. However, this cycle of poverty, poor health and food inequality can be broken with local community efforts, and YOU can help. While this information can be extremely jarring, we draw attention to these dismal statistics to say that change is possible and well on its way.

Currently farmers markets, local non-profits and other Memphis institutions are all collaborating to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in these areas. For example, the Cooper Young Farmers Market and the Downtown Farmers Market participate in a program called the Double Coupon Voucher Program. This program matches produce purchases using SNAP/EBT up to $10. For instance, if someone buys $10 of produce from local vendors, the matching program gives them $10 of extra “green tokens” that can be used to purchase fresh produce only. This doubles consumption and makes healthy eating a bit more accessible. You can help by donating to this fund or by simply volunteering at the farmer’s market. In addition to the Double Coupon Voucher Program, there are other programs directly targeting food deserts in Memphis such as the Green Machine: a mobile produce market bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to local neighborhoods with limited access to fresh produce. The more people that support community initiatives such as these, the larger effect we will see.

Another way to make a difference is to purchase a Pay It Forward subscription from us! For every $20, Bring It Food Hub is able to supply a family with a bag full of fresh local produce. Through our Pay It Forward program, we partner with community organizations around the city such as All Saints Presbyterian and Advance Memphis to connect farm fresh food with families in food deserts. You can purchase a full season or donate by the week. We also look forward to offering our produce subscriptions directly to SNAP/EBT users in 2015, now that our non-profit status is official.

In addition to food donations, participating in activities like fresh cooking classes can also increase awareness. For example, The Church Health Center hosts cooking classes in its Wellness Center and we donate the veggies. Classes like this not only promote healthy eating, but show people how to actually cook and maintain a healthy diet from week to week. The really exciting part about increasing community food access is that studies show that increased access actually does lead to increased consumption.

In 2010, the Food Trust analyzed eight studies conducted that looked at access to nearby supermarkets in relation to the consumption level of fresh fruits and veggies. These studies accounted for demographic variables such as race and income and still found a relationship between food access and healthy eating. African Americans living near a supermarket were more likely to meet dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables, and for every additional supermarket, produce consumption rose 32 percent. Among whites, each additional supermarket corresponded with an 11 percent increase in produce consumption. See results for 2002 below.

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This study is encouraging because it illustrates that greater access should lead to greater consumption. The possibilities for these communities are endless if we can garner community support and help people understand the severity of food deserts in Memphis.  Everyone should have the right to eat well, so let’s make it a reality. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to us via e-mail or by giving us a call. Eat local. Eat well.