Illustration by Sara Nettle

Illustration by Sara Nettle

Gainesville is one of the many cities across the country plagued by food deserts, which force those in low-income areas to rely on food empty of nutrients.

It’s getting to be that time of year when children sit at their desks in school, glancing at the clock, waiting for it to tick down to the final minutes before summer break. And when the bell chimes and the kids make a bolt for the door, some will go home to a snack while others will have to wait until much later, maybe the next day, for a meal.

Meanwhile, university students sit behind their computers, studying or browsing Facebook, snacking on the chips they grabbed from a vending machine to hold them over. Some will scramble to make ends meet by the end of the semester, hoping their scholarship and federal aid will stretch far enough for them to shop at Publix or Walmart before their exams.

Both scenarios are classic examples of food insecurity, but when either happens in an area devoid of places to find affordable fresh food, people on a limited budget are forced to choose fast food over healthier options. The consequences for their health can be life-threatening.

These kinds of areas, which exist all over the United States — including Gainesville — are called food deserts. They’re prevalent for a myriad of reasons, but a lot of the time it boils down to zoning restrictions and lack of monetary incentive by grocery companies. A grocery store may turn up its nose at a low-income area of town, but a gas station or convenience store might gladly take the same place, filling the bellies of the neighborhood with bags of prepackaged food instead of produce and other nutritious goods.

Gainesville has a few food deserts, including the Linton Oaks neighborhood west of the University of Florida, past Interstate 75 and south of Oaks Mall. Within the neighborhood, a solitary convenience store stands guard, providing minimal food and provisions while the oasis of Publix is almost half an hour away by bus. At the same time, fast food chains dot the interstate exits that lead into the neighborhood, all with menus that can feed a family for less than $10. In this situation, the tricky calculus is weighing how much you can stretch your dollar while also staying within a reasonable distance–without a lot of money, owning a car is sometimes out of reach, or not a priority over food or electricity.

Well aware of this, the Southwest Advocacy Group Family Resource Center has been working with the city of Gainesville to build a road directly connecting the neighborhood to its facilities. The center has a clinic and cooking classes that provide food for participants as well as a food bank. Despite their best efforts, though, the road won’t be built for quite a while. According to the Alachua Country Public Works database, the project has been in the works since 2013. Between community hearings and permits, the progress has taken several years to get to 90 percent. The Public Works Department was unable to give an exact end date.

Closer to the center of town lies the university, and with it students living paycheck-to-paycheck. A 2013 survey conducted by the university’s Gatorwell program showed that a little over 20 percent of students on campus claim to skip a meal occasionally, often due to financial constraints. In response to this staggering number, the school has begun an initiative to try and curb the bite of hunger in its students. As of this spring, the university built The Field and Fork Food Pantry on the campus, Fairly anonymous (they ask only for a Gator ID), the service provides toiletries and food without implicating the students who need it. This service is intended for students only, however, and so it doesn’t address the larger midtown and downtown area, or anyone who isn’t subsumed under the university’s care.

And even still, both of these measures only affect those already housed, leaving out a large population in the city: those who cannot afford adequate housing. It probably comes as no surprise, but food insecurity is a major problem with the homeless, regardless of circumstance. Because their housing is tenuous, other basic needs like food falls by the wayside. And if a person is hungry, often the only choices are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor choices like McDonald’s or Burger King.

Kathleen Saren is a registered dietitian working with the HONORS program, a local facility funded by the Veteran’s Association that provides beds and food for homeless veteran soldiers. At the program, Kathleen teaches cooking classes alongside the nutrition assessments she provides for the veterans.

Using produce from the center’s community garden in her class recipes, Saren tries to show that the very greens that seemed illusory before can actually grow in small, apartment friendly pots.

Her goal is to make the recipes she demonstrates for the class under $2 a serving, and she has been fairly successful so far. Regardless of whether a veteran decides to take Saren’s class, the HONORS program helps those who have fallen get back on their feet and transition to a new, and hopefully better, place.

Despite the good that the program provides, it also faces an unclear future. President Obama declared that he intended to end homelessness in veteran soldiers by 2015. Such a high-order demand is hard to meet, but programs like HONORS have actually been fairly successful in turning the tide. That being said, the year is now 2015, and the money provided to the programs may no longer be available. Whether this will lead to shifts in how programs like HONORS run is hard to say, but Saren said she is hopeful that the successes will continue despite the change in federal aid.

At the end of the day, Saren believes that to address the problems associated with food insecurity – obesity, diabetes, heart disease – we must treat the problem as something else.

“I think the challenge now is that you can eat food. People of low income level, at the poverty level, they have access to food. It’s empty calories, though,” she said. “I no longer think that food insecurity is main problem, it’s nutrient insecurity.”