Investigation: Residents in food deserts are hungry for help

Health

(WAVY) — Few options — and even those are usually more expensive and less nutritious. That’s what people face when they live in food deserts.

The United States Department of Agriculture says a food desert is any area where at least one-third of the population is a mile or more from a supermarket.

It’s a national problem, but food deserts can be found in Hampton Roads in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News and Hampton.

“I promised two people cakes, and it’s from scratch,” says Pat Mitchell as she gets ready to go shopping. A resident of Campostella Heights in Norfolk, she used to have a Farm Fresh five minutes away in Berkley. Now it’s empty, with Family Dollar and convenience stores as the only local options.

“We live with a lot of retirees as well as elderly people. Not everybody has access to cars in this neighborhood. They use Uber and Lyft if they can’t get a ride from someone else,” she said.

Fortunately for Mitchell, she has a car. The nearest supermarket is now a Food Lion three miles away in Chesapeake.

Mitchell wants to know what the city is doing to help her and her neighbors.

“At least let us know that it is an issue, that you are thinking about it, that we’re not forgotten,” she said.

“We’re on it every day,” says Jared Chalk, Norfolk’s interim director of economic development. “It’s been a challenge, not only as we look at Campostella and Berkley, but citywide, region-wide and across the nation.”

Hampton Roads has food deserts in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News and Hampton.

Chalk says he’s encouraged about the situation in Berkley. For the first time, Norfolk City Council has approved $550,000 to attract a supermarket to the area.

“We’ve reached out to everybody. We’ve talked to most national grocery chains. We’ve talked to local grocery chains,” Chalk said.

Norfolk has also worked with Hampton Roads Transit and the City of Chesapeake to improve bus service for Norfolk residents when they shop. Norfolk is also looking into co-ops and grocery delivery services, which he believes can help low-income areas and underserved markets.

“It’s concentrated poverty and those are the folks that have little or no transportation,” says Norfolk’s Bev Sell, who has organized farmers markets and other initiatives to get fresh food to urban food deserts.

“I believe food is social justice. I believe it is a human right to have access to good, fresh, local food. Usually good food is only for people with money, and it doesn’t seem to be fair to me,” Sell said.

Sell ran a portable food market in Norfolk for more than four years. It brought produce to people in public housing communities. “We had seniors, young mothers with kids, single folks that would come out and participate.”

But the nonprofit became nonexistent in 2016. The appetite for the concept was still there, but grants and donors who were picking up the check had dwindled. Now, Sell has something new on her plate.

FEAST is a new program to the East Coast. It stands for Food, Education, Access, Support, Together. Participants will get a box of fruits and vegetables each week with customized recipes, education on healthy eating, cooking demonstrations and advice on how to shop healthy on any budget.

She’s hoping people in food deserts will get two things they’re hungry for: better health and more hope. FEAST is set to launch in March.

“We warehouse the poor, we’ve run them with fast food, and then we condemn them for having ill health, and we all own a piece of this,” she said.

Back to Campostella Heights resident Mitchell’s shopping trip: She’s a diabetic, so selection is as important as a convenient location.

“I have to look for certain special things, like brown pasta and rice, and it just may not be there,” she said.

“It’s major that you have to get in your car and go 20 minutes to get an onion,” says Mitchell’s neighbor Clarence Perry. “A simple thing as an onion.”

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