Last month, the USDA released an online food “desert” locater where one can view areas that are considered “food deserts”, based on the percentage of the population considered low-income, and the distance away from major supermarkets. Parts of West Seattle, Renton and Skyway are encompassed in big pink masses on the map. According to the site, one area in Renton has 2,174 people with low access to food. Among those with low access, 240 of them are considered low-income, 342 are children and 402 are seniors.
Food deserts are common in rural, urban and industrial areas, where high poverty rates combined with low access to healthy, affordable food can result in high obesity rates and poor nutrition. Eliminating food deserts through outreach to supermarket chains and community education is seen as just as much a social justice issue, as it is a health issue.
As negative health impacts are increasingly linked to exposure to pesticides used to grow conventionally-grown produce, urban areas that are flush with supermarkets are grappling with another issue. Is it possible to live in another kind of food desert — an organic food desert? And, could even moderate levels of poverty, or cultural notions of thrift, actually promote organic food deserts?
The choice to eat organic reflects a cultural rift in Seattle, and across the country. Those who are educated about health impacts, the environmental toll of nitrogen pollution in our waterways, and the fossil fuels that are burned to ship produce all over the world, can often afford to eat all organic.
For others, especially those in the Asian community, culture trumps all of these concerns. Upscale supermarkets like Whole Foods and Metropolitan market sell loads of (expensive) organic produce, but their selection of leafy green choy would leave any serious Chinese cook running for an Asian grocery.
Varieties of noodles, precisely mixed sauces, live fish and exotic mushrooms make up the dishes that are ingrained in our culture, and remind us of home and our families. All these ingredients are readily available to those living in my neighborhood in south Seattle, but are largely not organic.
To find out how many Asian groceries in my neighborhood offered organic produce, I did a little field research. I walked to my neighborhood market, Mekong Grocery on Rainier Ave. S., and asked an employee if any of the produce was organic. He said no, and that in the two years he’d worked there, he’d only seen organic baby bananas, once. I then went over to the new Othello Public Market on MLK and Othello. They have a diverse selection of produce for Latino and Asian communities, but nothing was organic.
“Our number one priority is to keep produce as accessible as possible,” said Mateo Monda, the market manager. Often organic produce is too expensive if they want to move it quickly, explains Mondo. Othello Public Market does plan to have local Washington produce, but not until another month or so. At Viet-Wah, the story wasn’t much different. The produce mostly comes from California, Mexico in the winter, with Washington fruit coming in the summer. It was not organic except for some tangerines, the produce manager told me. The barrier? Price.
So what can one do, if one wants to continue cooking Asian food, eat organic, and not spend a fortune? There are some options for gaining access to organic foods, that doesn’t mean trekking across town to an expensive upscale supermarket. For example:
• Cowpool. You and a group of people can organize to buy a whole, grass-fed cow from a local small-scale farm, rather than buying meat from an industrial factory farm. An eighth of a cow can be enough for a small family of three, is cheaper than buying organic meat from the supermarket, and you can request specific cuts, such as the tail, cheek, tongue and tripe. Cascade Range Beef is one company that handles cow shares. Harvest is available annually in spring.
• Farmer’s markets. There are now weekly farmer’s markets in nearly all neighborhoods in Seattle during the summer, including Columbia City, the Central District and West Seattle. Events, hours and locations are at www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org. Deals on organic produce can be found, depending on the item, season and vendor.
• Be selective. If you’d like to incorporate more organic foods into your family’s diet, focus on apples, bell peppers, berries, celery, cherries, grapes (imported), lettuce, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries, as they tend to be the ones that contain the highest levels of pesticides. Environmental Working Group has a full list of best and worst fruits and veggies at http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php.
• Community supported agriculture, or CSA is an alternative food network where individuals support local farming communities by purchasing a weekly or bi-weekly delivery or pick-up of organic produce, and sometimes dairy or meat. CSAs available in Seattle include Full Circle Farms, Tiny’s Organics and SPUD.
There isn’t conclusive science finding that those eating non-organic produce are far worse off than those who eat all organic. But, there have been studies finding that babies exposed to high levels of common pesticides in the womb have lower IQ scores than their peers. Pregnant women and parents of young children, especially, are choosing organic produce when it’s economically viable, as a precaution.
If you do live in a food desert, visit www.healthycornerstores.org for tips on how to build community support for healthier products at your nearest corner store. After you’ve developed a plan, reach out to your mayor and city council — they should want to work with you, especially if they have already introduced any special initiatives promoting healthy food, nutrition or wellness.
Above all, choice is precious. Those who have access to fresh, affordable produce that they can incorporate into their culture’s dishes are fortunate, to say the least. But if some are exposed to higher risks for types of cancers, reproductive problems, lower IQ and developmental disorders because of the food options they have, organic food deserts become an important problem to eliminate.