Durham News: Opinion

Elizabeth Poindexter: Oasis in the food deserts

By Elizabeth Poindexter

Elizabeth Poindexter
Elizabeth Poindexter

Some of my earliest memories as a young girl at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh include eating as many honey sticks as I could get my hands on and buying our annual Christmas tree.

These days, you can typically find me at the Durham Farmers’ Market, either downtown or in South Durham. There’s something soothing about gently squeezing a peach for ripeness at the end of a busy week. Peaches are a summertime staple, and the smell of peach cobbler baking in the oven can’t be beat.

While I rely on the farmers’ market to provide fresh produce, when we need food mid-week, jumping in my car and driving a few miles to the nearest grocery store is an easy chore. If I stick to my grocery list, my visit is brief, and dinner is on the table. For hundreds of our neighbors, however, fresh, accessible food is harder to come by, partly because of food deserts in our back yard.

When I first heard of the food desert concept, I dismissed it as not being an issue here. Food deserts are regions lacking fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods, usually because they don’t have nearby grocery stores or farmers’ markets. Interestingly, the city of Durham recently launched the Durham Neighborhood Compass project, a free tool to glean information about communities. Unfortunately, it shows several regions in Durham where less than 13 percent of the population live within walking distance to full-service grocers. Without easy access, households face higher costs of transportation and rely instead on convenience stores as a reliable food source.

Access to healthy foods, particularly for seniors, is a critical issue. In 2013, one in four older adults lived at or near poverty and were at risk when it comes to adequate food sources. Additionally, one in four households with one or more people over age 60 receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. A lack of proper nutrients can lead to chronic disease, including exacerbating physical and mental health problems.

In 2013, one in four older adults lived at or near poverty and were at risk when it comes to adequate food sources.

Even in a self-proclaimed foodie town like Durham, access to healthy foods is sometimes overlooked. Durham prides itself as a destination for foodies, but now it can add helping low-income and senior neighbors to its long list of accolades. Thanks to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize of $25,000, the Partnership for a Healthy Durham has offered several organizations mini grants to improve the health of Durham residents.

The obesity and chronic illness committee of the partnership plans to implement the grant to expand access to fresh food to older adults who live in public or affordable housing. They’ve partnered with mobile market Grocers on Wheels and plan to visit several housing sites once a month. Using the grant, senior residents who choose to shop at the market and use SNAP will be able to double up to $10 they spend on food in order to plan healthier meals. Staff will also be available to help residents determine if they qualify for benefits and assist with applications.

The even better news is this project will compliment a similar project designed to combat obesity and chronic illness in Durham. Currently, Durham’s farmers’ markets are also doubling SNAP benefits to match up to $10 per market day. That has enabled people to buy more homegrown products, like eggs, meats, and grains. Already, nearly 40 customers a week benefit from the double dollars and spend close to $1,000 a week on healthy foods.

The next time you’re at the Durham Farmers’ Market or the South Durham Farmers’ Market, take a moment to think about others in need. There are several ways to donate to the double bucks program, including online and at the information booth table. You can also help spread the word by sharing the double bucks program with others. I know dozens of fellow farmers’ market shoppers who enjoy fresh, healthy meals that support the local economy. Our neighbors deserve the same.

Elizabeth Poindexter is the marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at epoindexter@durhamcares.org