Finding a Lifeline in a Food Desert

Malnourished children are distracted learners.
Monday, December 10, 2012

Cara Volpe is a member of the 2003 Houston corps.

It was the icing on the cake.  More accurately, the sriracha on the pork bun.

You’ve had those days before—the ones where it’s 4 p.m. and you’ve only had coffee. Despite being ravenous, I was riding the high of having visited two great schools. I was mentally preparing to just buy a bag of chips and call it lunch, but lo and behold… there it was: a Momofuku Milk Bar! It took all the willpower I had not to just order the “Crack Pie.” 

I’ve been in this same "visiting-schools-and-no-time-to-eat" situation an obscene number of times—but the scenario usually ends with me ordering McDonald’s french fries and then eating them on the subway platform at 149th and 3rd Avenue. The reality is that when you’re visiting a school in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, you have a variety of food options, including one of the Momofuku restaurants—a total NYC-foodie destination. When you’re visiting schools in the South Bronx you usually have. . . McDonald’s. And a local bodega, a sidewalk vendor, and a Checker’s if you’re lucky.

Identifying a food desert is not an exact science—if you’re not hungry or paying attention, it might be easy to overlook the total dearth of food options in certain neighborhoods (to say nothing of healthy food options). While the root causes and cyclical effects of food deserts are definitely complex, the impact of lack of access to the foods that make up a healthy diet is easy to understand: It’s not good.


A close shot of a fresh apples, tomatoes, asparagus, blackberries and peppers on a table.


Photo by KDVP via Wkimedia Commons

Have you ever actually tried school lunch as an adult? I have. I can still taste the salt-lick of a string-bean pile that was scooped onto my foam tray. I’m pretty sure school lunch is rather bad across the board, but if you’re a free- and reduced-price lunch student (21 million students in the United States are), then you may not even have a nice dinner to look forward to at home.

Malnourished children are distracted learners, whether it’s because they’re hungry or because they’re so pumped full of sugar they can’t sit still. The long-term effects of sugary, fatty, fast-food-filled diets—obesity, diabetes, heart disease—can be exacerbated by the fact that a food-desert community likely also suffers from inadequate healthcare.    

So as we make our way through the food-coma-filled holiday season, I want to salute a few people, organizations, and programs that are working to bolster the health of communities through access to plentiful and healthy food options, as well as other supports:

  • In addition to working directly to provide alternative food options, organizations like Red Rabbit and Revolution Foods are also providing educational programming to schools and communities.
  • Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is changing the conversation on healthy eating.
  • Namaste Charter School in Chicago (founded by Teach For America alum Allison Slade, Houston '96), “combines health and wellness with academic rigor in a peaceful environment.” Namaste offers a summer institute for educators interested in replicating their innovative model.
  • The federal food-stamp program, SNAP, operates a virtual town hall to help educate low-income families on healthy food choices. In NYC, more and more greenmarkets are accepting foodstamps/EBT (electronic benefit transfer) payments.
  • Girl Trek’s Healthy Black Women and Girls (co-founded by Teach For America alum Morgan Dixon, Metro Atlanta '00) is teaching girls to get a head start on healthy living choices.

For the record, I passed up the “Crack Pie” at Momofuku and went for the pork bun instead. With a poached egg on top. Followed by a marshmallow cornflake cookie. Though perhaps not the healthiest choice, it was indeed infinitely more delicious than subway-platform french fries.

Thinking she’d eventually go to medical school, Cara graduated from the University of Virginia and moved to Houston to join Teach For America; a decade later, she’s still working in education. She currently manages an initiative to encourage collaboration between public schools (both district and charter) and will never stop seeing the world through the eyes of a teacher and learner. You can find her on Twitter @cara_volpe


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