Friday, September 26, 2014

Food Caravans: Why Birmingham Alabama is Putting Produce Markets on Wheels

by Nomad

The city of Birmingham, Alabama is trying out an urban project to bring healthy food to neighborhoods in need. 

In past blog posts we have taken a look at the problem of "food deserts." Where deserts are places with limited water or limited access to whatever water is there, food deserts are  areas where residents may not have access to affordable and healthy food options. 
That's particularly true when it comes to the healthy alternatives (fresh fruit and vegetables).   
According to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2 percent of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.
There's no mistaking it. The problem cuts down racial and class lines. Food deserts can be most generally found in communities of color and low-income areas (where many people don't have cars). 

In contrast, wealthier parts of town, studies tell us, have three times as many supermarkets as poor areas. And white neighborhoods have on average up to four times as many supermarkets as black neighborhoods. To make matters worse, grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection. 
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that in some poorer sections of urban America,  it could be easier to buy illegal drugs than to find a healthy meal for a family.
So, that's the problem, but what are the solutions?  

Birmingham's Bright Idea
Well, the city of Birmingham, Alabama has approved of a innovative plan to bring the food to those who most need it. 
The board of supervisors for the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) has approved of the city's plan to create so-called "mobile food markets." 

Under BJCTA's agreement with the city, four buses that no longer are useful for transit purposes would be decommissioned and would then become property of the city.
The city would in turn be responsible for providing insurance and for hiring an operator, ideally a nonprofit group, which would provide drivers and run the program. The four buses would then refurbished as fresh fruit and vegetable markets on wheels, in order to sell healthy food to underserved areas of Birmingham. 

The city has teamed up with the brains at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to look at "feasible ways to retrofit buses with racks and shelves and ways to track data. That data could be provided to retailers to show them possible areas of investment. Meaning, as a selling point for private companies who might be interested in taking over after the project runs its course.
The mobile market idea was one of several recommendations from a study of the city provided by IBM's $500,000 Smarter Cities Challenge Grant, city Community Development Director John Colon told BJCTA board members.
The idea of mobile food markets seems to be catching on. Birmingham is no means the first city to launch the project.

(On the left, you can see what Chicago mobile food market looked like. Pretty spiffy, huh?)

In Minnesota, the City Council and the mayor of Minneapolis, this spring, lifted its ban on such fresh produce vendors. Mayor Betty Hodges said
"Mobile grocery stores will offer fresh, healthy food in an accessible and affordable way, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Nutrition is an important part of equity for people of all ages and for the community."
The costs for the Birmingham project. according to the article, were estimated at $79,000 annually for fuel and about $100,000 for maintenance. Under this agreement, the lifespan of the project will be four years with an option of two one-year extensions after that period. 
The costs balanced against the benefits was certainly an issue that had to be properly weighed by the civic leaders. In the end, the needs of the poor outweighed the economics.

According to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, when it comes to "concentrated poverty" - neighborhood where at least 40% of the people are below the poverty line- Birmingham ranks about in the middle. The metro area came in 42nd out of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas in the share of the metro's poor population who live in those extreme- poverty tracts.

(Looking at the state as a whole, an estimated 22 percent of Alabama residents are living below the federal poverty line, representing roughly 1 million people, according to an analysis conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. )
Living in such neighborhoods has wide-ranging handicaps, from low economic opportunity and more expensive shopping to higher crime and poorer health.
 Birmingham city officials clearly consider residents\ access to healthy foods a "quality of life" issue. And there's a lot of evidence to support the idea.

The Economics of Eating
Unlike most countries in the world, in the US, eating healthy is not cheap. Healthier foods on average tend to be more expensive than unhealthful foods, particularly in food deserts. A 2005 study by The American Society for Nutritional Sciences noted that added sugars and added fats are far more affordable than are the recommended “healthful” diets based on lean meats, whole grains, and fresh vegetables and fruit.

Here's one example, even as the price of fruits and vegetable soared by nearly 75% in the last two decades, the costs of fatty foods declined by more than 26% during that same time period.
While such inflation has strained the food budgets of many families regardless of their financial status, the higher cost of healthy foods often puts them entirely beyond the monetary means of many lower-income people.
When you include various food additives (too much salt, too much sugar) and preservatives, over-processing and the freshness, the lack of quality food choices for low income households becomes a serious problem. Public health efforts in the past have largely failed to resolve the problem. 
By putting the produce markets on wheels, city officials hope to improve access to healthier foods, including vegetables and fruit.

The Price of Unhealthy Eating 
If eating on the cheap means unhealthy eating, what are the effects of  long-term limited access to healthy foods to general health of community? Statistics show that in food deserts, there are higher rates in obesity, type 2 diabetescardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population. 

Health is already a pressing problem in Alabama. Alabama ranks among the top five states in the nation for the prevalence of diabetes, surpassing the national average. 
The state also has the eighth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. But when it comes to the death rate from cardiovascular disease,  Alabama has the 2nd highest in the country.

With those depressing numbers for diseases that all require preventative care, continuing monitoring- as opposed to emergency treatment- Alabama's governor, Robert Bentley (R) refusal to expand Medicaid eligibility to 235,000 uninsured, low-income residents of his state is hard to explain.

Thank goodness that the city officials of Birmingham have not been as willing to throw its more vulnerable citizens under the bus.