I did a survey recently with close friends and family about why they don’t make more vegan choices. Besides the usual fear of the mythical “protein deficiency” that they would face and the social aspects of food and eating meat, each of which I’ll discuss in future posts, the next big one was cost or accessibility. And since this was one that I could discuss without too much research, I thought I would write about this first.
There is this illusion that healthy food, particularly fruits and vegetables, are accessible to everyone. And to those of us who have the privilege to have that accessibility, we believe this, hence the word “privilege” because we don’t have to think about getting fruits and veggies because they might be everyone or accessible within walking or driving distance to where we live. But that’s not the case for everyone. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of a food desert is alive and well in the US.
But what is a food desert and what can we do about it?
I had a mentor tell me once that “food deserts” was a misnomer because deserts were natural and food deserts weren’t. I liked that perspective because food deserts are not natural. They were created by oppressive systems to keep people living in poverty, particularly people of color, sick and dependent on pharmaceuticals to keep themselves alive.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me first explain what a food desert is. Not to be confused with dessert, which is a sweet treat, a food desert is just what it sounds like: It is a desert that has little to no food resources. This means that within a certain geographical area, usually about a mile in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas, where there is little to no access to food, particularly fresh food, like fruits and veggies.
Most cities have, if not one, multiple food deserts in their city limits and if you don’t live in those areas, you probably wouldn’t even notice that there isn’t a grocery store within certain neighborhoods or barrios. That is a privilege that I also have. I live within walking distance of TWO grocery stores, one of which is a health foods store with a ton of options for fresh fruits and veggies. That’s not including the local mercados that Latinx immigrants have started all down the main street in my neighborhood called Fruitvale Ave.
So, back to the systemic impact that have created food deserts.
SYSTEMIC OPPRESSION: FOOD EDITION
You’ll only find food deserts in working-class, working poor, majority communities of color neighborhoods. Big box stores will hardly be found in these neighborhoods. And that’s usually by design. To them, these neighborhoods are not worth investing in, not worth opening in. When researching a bit for this post, I literally typed into Google search ” Trader Joe’s and poor communities” and came up with pages of articles, going back to 2010 about why Trader Joe’s repeatedly avoids opening up stores in working-class neighborhoods. Someone even went so far as to collect data and map it out!
And even when they decide to open a store and then leave for whatever reason, they make it harder for other stores to open up in their place. Food Empowerment Project is working on a campaign like this with Safeway. Safeway puts a block in their contracts that prohibits other grocery stores from opening up in their previous locations FOR 15 YEARS. For some communities, this might have been the only grocery store within their neighborhood or close to a bus stop. With this block, there will be no other store within this neighborhood for 15 YEARS! That’s ridiculous! They are purposely keeping communities without fresh fruit and vegetables, all for profit. Unfortunately, this is not illegal. They can legally block other grocers from using their space. This is just another example of how systems play a role in keeping people unhealthy and without fresh produce. First, they can just decide not to open in places that need it most and/or block other grocery stores to open after they leave a neighborhood.
So to even talk to people about veganism, we have to first talk about the inaccessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables within certain communities of color and working-class, poor communities. Without meeting this first, immediate need, the cause of veganism will fall on closed ears, with good reason. I talk to people about veganism, not just to lessen the suffering of non-human animals but also to lessen the suffering of our planet and my community. I’ve seen people suffering from preventable diseases like diabetes and hypertension knowing that what we put in our bodies impacts the quality of life we lead not to mention that impact on our wallets taking all those medications will have.
But it’s not all bad news! There are some great ways to support and encourage more fruits and vegetable for all the people in your neighborhood or city to help animals, the planet and the health of our communities.
SHARE THE VEGGIE LOVE
My first plan for action is SNAP. I don’t mean The Bend and Snap from Legally Blonde. Wow! I just showed my age on that one! SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It used to be called food stamps, which is what people still call it. But my advice for action on this is two-fold. One: if you can use food stamps, use them. I know and understand there is a lot of stigma around food stamps (my family and I were on food stamps for a while when I was younger and in my teens) so I know its tough. But that money is meant to be used by people going through a hard time. It’s money put in by all of us to make sure that all communities have access to fresh fruits and vegetable. Its been stigmatized and demonized by politics so that they can cut it to make rich people richer. Please use it. I wish I had used it when I was on college. I totally could have qualified but was embarrassed that I needed it and instead took out more student loans to help pay my way through school. I look back now and wished that I had used it as I pay down y student loans. And, at least here in CA, there’s been moves to change some of the stigma with EBT cards so that it looks like a regular debit card. And though I see that as a bandaid for the real issue of shaming poor people when they are trying to get assistance TO LIVE AND SURVIVE, its a step in the right direction.
If your not eligible for food stamps, help enroll others who are and help destigmatize the issue. There are volunteer positions and jobs that are for helping people enroll in benefits like SNAP. And if you speak another language fluently, even better! People need your help. Enrolling for benefits is complicated and often a lengthy process. And on top of that, with the news of #45 leaking an Executive Order that if immigrants use federal and state benefits, that information will be used against them when trying to apply for residency or citizenship, who is going to want to use those benefits! As of the writing of this, this EO has not gone into effect so it will not impact your immigration process. There’s quite a bit of fear from all different places that block people from using these services. So, your community needs you! Be the example by applying if you’re eligible or by helping others apply, if you’re not.
My second action advice is farmer’s markets and community gardens! Organize farmer’s markets in different parts of your city. Right now, Oakland has 5 weekly farmer’s markets. Zero of those are in East Oakland, especially deep east where the need for fresh fruits and vegetable are needed. Contact your local organizers of the market and let them know that more farmer’s markets are needed in different areas of the city. And on top of that, ask them if they take SNAP or EBT cards. If they don’t, tell them they have to! I’ve linked the process for them to do that, no matter where you live here. If you live in a food desert, either get a farmer’s market in your neighborhood or start your own community garden. This is a little more involved but its a great way to get to know your neighbors if you don’t know them or to work on something together, if you already know them. Plus, with a quick search on the internet or at your local library, you can find tons of information on how to start one and probably an organization that can help you put it together. In Oakland, we’re lucky in that we have lots of resources for this, including an organization that gives you all the supplies you need and will mentor you in your garden. And the city has plots that you can rent through out the city, in case you live in an apartment like i do and don’t have a backyard or space to plant. Overall, connect with individuals, organizations and institutions to make your neighborhood fuller of fruits and veggies!
My last action advice: talk about it! Whether you live in a food desert or not, we aren’t talking about it enough. There is some great work going on in Oakland around food injustice, just google Oakland food justice and you’ll come up with dozens of organizations and communities working on this issue, but it doesn’t seem to be out in public where everyone knows this is going on, especially those who are not connected with organizations or the food justice movement. There is a lot of privilege when it comes to food. We need to open people’s eyes to the lack of healthy food in some parts of our country. We need more people, particularly people of color, to talk about the need and want for healthy fruits and vegetable in your neighborhood. We know that these foods, along with grains nuts and seeds, are good for you and the planet but we’re not talking about it to people, out in the world, in public, every chance we get. We need to start asking why is food so scarce in a country of excess, why are there people starving or malnourished in one of the richest countries in the world and what can we do about it? We need to start seeing health not as a luxury but as a right. We all have the right to be healthy. To live a life without heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. But we can’t do that without talking about what can help cure us of these ailments. When a McDonald’s cheeseburger is cheaper and more accessible than a bunch of broccoli, we’ve got a serious problem.
So vegans of the world, as we continue to talk to others about veganism and the benefit that it brings to our lives, let’s also listen to folks about why they can’t or won’t. They are valid reasons because it is the truth in people’s lives and it matters. We won’t be able to help more animals, the planet or the health of our communities without understanding the barriers that keeps them from making more vegan choices. Let’s listen and then take action with those who need it the most. Let’s make going vegan the easiest decision that they could ever make. Let’s support, guide and encourage instead of judging others for their perceived lack of discipline. And don’t act like vegans don’t do this because they do.
Not everyone will go vegan but everyone can make more vegan choices. What are some other ways that we can support and encourage others to go vegan? Leave your comments of ideas that I missed.
Need more support going vegan? I started my own vegan transition coach business to support the Latinx community make more vegan choices. Contact me at email@example.com or send me a message through this post for more info.