Grocery shopping becomes a journey in food deserts

Roy Kirby stacks a bin of fresh cucumbers at the South Tucson Food City. Most of the produce at the grocery store comes from California or Mexico every morning. (Photo by Cecelia Marshall)
Roy Kirby stacks a bin of fresh cucumbers at the South Tucson Food City. Most of the produce at the grocery store comes from California or Mexico every morning. (Photo by Cecelia Marshall)

In flimsy plastic flip-flops, Brandie Fink lugged her plastic grocery bags down South Tucson’s main street.  It took her over an hour to walk only half a mile to the nearby Walgreens and back for her day’s necessities.

Often, grocery shopping takes all day. Each day Fink must strategize how she shops.  What can she afford? What groceries must she forfeit because they’re too heavy to carry home? How can she get home quickest without perishables going bad?

Fink is a single mom raising two kids and diagnosed with cancer. With no job and no child support, she receives governmental assistance including WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, and food stamps, now known as SNAP.  Each month, WIC provides her with checks for 14 cans of baby formula. That’s 14 individual heavy cans she must get from Food City and carry home by herself.

For many Americans grocery shopping is a mundane, quick and easy errand. But for those, like Fink who live in “food deserts,” it’s a journey.

More than 23.5 million Americans, including some 700,000 Arizonans, are currently living in food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which defines a food desert as an area with little to no access to grocery stores offering fresh, healthy and affordable produce and other foods.

Food deserts dot the nation, from Californian suburbs to the Mississippi delta to parts of even the  “Bread Basket of the Nation” in Chicago. Sixty percent of Arizona’s 153 food deserts in Arizona are in cities.

People in food deserts must turn to fast food restaurants and convenience stores, instead of large groceries.

Fink gets her fruits and vegetables from cans. She can’t afford the bus that stops outside her home and would drop her off directly in front of the Food City parking lot, and even if she could, she says she could not afford the fresh produce there.

What’s more, the journey would be difficult and cumbersome for her 19-year-old disabled son, who uses a wheelchair.

Every day Fink must walk back and forth to get enough food for her family.  Sometimes she stocks up for a couple days, loading up her arms with bags of groceries.  Other times, her arms are sore and she sacrifices convenience for price: choosing the $5 block of cheese from Circle K over the $1.50 identical cheese a mile down the road.

Without transportation, Brandie Fink carries her groceries on the long walk home. (Photo by Cecelia Marshall)
Without transportation, Brandie Fink carries her groceries on the long walk home. (Photo by Cecelia Marshall)

In South Tucson, a city of almost six thousand people in one square mile, there are plenty of restaurants, public buses and a Food City on the south end of town. About half the residents of the one-square mile community are below the poverty line, according to the 2010 census bureau.

“Food is really expensive right now,” said Sandra Hinojos-Cuen of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

“For families on SNAP, the last week of the month is really hard,” she said. “More and more people come [to the food bank] and get a food box right before they get their next month’s SNAP benefits.”

Packaged inside the boxes are rice, beans, cereal and peanut butter.

“It’s a supplemental box. To call it a food box is stretching it,” said Hinojos-Cuen.

Although benefits like SNAP seem invaluable – unless you can’t afford transportation.

“I have to always think to myself, ‘How am I going to get this home?’” said Fink.

“It’s 45-minute walk one way. But that’s only if I don’t bring my 2-year-old or my 19-year-old son. Otherwise it’s an hour walk down to Food City and an hour back.”

Twice she has been stopped by South Tucson police and ticketed for taking a grocery cart past store premises.  But for Fink, sometimes it’s the only way.

“On my walks, I see little kids having to carry gallons of milk home for their families. It’s just sad,” said Fink.

On this day, Fink walked to Walgreens.  She pulled out the sippy cups from a bag.  Had she walked half a mile farther to Family Dollar, these sippy cups would have only cost $1.50.  But she said she couldn’t stay away from her sons for too long and instead spent $4 at Walgreens for the same product.

“It’s hard even for people with cars because the gas prices are so high,” said Fink.

Brian Flagg, director of South Tucson’s Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, feeds hundreds of people every day. Although he says the food there may not be the healthiest or freshest, it fills the empty stomachs.

So how can a food desert transform into a food oasis?

The Obama administration set aside $4 million to attract grocery franchises like Safeway and Wal-Mart to food deserts to improve access and affordability. An agriculture department report to Congress in 2009 showed that food is priced 10 percent lower in big-box grocery stores than corner stores, farmers markets and food stands.  Food deserts will be eliminated by 2017, the administration projects.

“It’s who you know and what you know,” said Hinojos-Cuen. The Community Food Bank offers resources and information on where to get food, she said.

People’s attitude toward food and knowledge of nutrition also need to change, said Kelly Watters, the coordinator for Somos La Semilla, a network of local food providers trying to end hunger and encourage alternative methods of food growth.

South Tucson schools, such as Ochoa Middle School and Mission View Elementary, are encouraging families and students to learn about food’s healthy benefits and how to grow and prepare produce from their gardens.

“People don’t have the same connection with the land as the past. People expect to get their groceries from supermarkets and don’t know where it comes from,” said Watters.

Along the main streets of South Tucson and within walking distance and bus route access are options like the community garden and the Garden Kitchen, which is a part of the UA cooperative extension. Its goal is to teach residents how to grow their own food, buy fresh produce, and cook fruits and vegetables in a low-cost way.  It contains vegetable gardens, colorful scarecrows and indoor kitchens for cooking demonstrations.

Still, Fink says, it is an uphill struggle.

“People don’t think about the small people here,” said Fink.

“It’s impossible but we make it possible because we need to get food home for our kids to eat,” she said.

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