Food Desert-1

Photo by Sean Doolan.

Gainesville’s low-income families struggle to find fresh food amid the city’s food deserts.

The 16-month-old voraciously ate a banana while his two older sisters hung off the shopping cart. Meanwhile their mother, Amanda Vostrejs, scoured Wal-Mart’s endless aisles, comparing unit prices, serving sizes and nutrition facts. She was ready with her notebook, which assigned a meal for every day of the month.

If it’s not on the list, chances are she’s not buying it. This is the only shopping trip she will make for two weeks, and she has to make sure the food lasts for her family of four until the next trip.

Vostrejs, a 26-year-old mother, counts on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits to provide enough money to pay for groceries. But without a car, getting access to those groceries is a continuous struggle.

Issues surrounding access to fresh and affordable groceries have plagued areas of Gainesville for years, and the problem isn’t unique to Vostrejs. Today the areas east of Northeast Waldo Road and Southeast Hawthorne Road, known as East Gainesville, have only two full-service grocery stores: a Wal-Mart and a Save-a-Lot.

Other areas of town, notably the southwest portion of Gainesville, have only gas stations and convenience stores. These spots, among others, are considered food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defined as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

Food deserts are usually populated by low-income families and characterized by low access to fresh foods. The USDA’s original 2006 measure referred to food deserts as low-income areas at least 1 mile (for urban communities) or 10 miles (for rural communities) away from a supermarket.

The USDA states that areas like this might only have access to fast food restaurants or gas stations, which limits the amount of fresh, healthy food community members can eat. This can contribute to health risks like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Adam Hall, executive committee chair of the San Felasco section of the American Planning Association Florida chapter, said there are many ideas for solving food deserts.

“It depends on what you think the main problem is,” he said.

Today the areas east of Northeast Waldo Road and Southeast Hawthorne Road, known as East Gainesville, have only two full-service grocery stores: a Wal-Mart and a Save-a-Lot.

After devoting 2015 to researching local food systems, the San Felasco chapter (an area that spans most of Central Florida) found that the main issues creating and perpetuating the low-resource areas are: development and homebuilding on land previously reserved for agriculture; strict zoning regulations or homeowner’s association rules restricting community gardens; and a lack of investment in food deserts.

“The food desert phenomenon is symptomatic of the lack of investment (in infrastructure) that a lot of governments have had in certain areas of town,” he said. “And it’s not just in Gainesville or Alachua County.”

By infrastructure, Hall means the city’s and county’s investments to improve water, sewer systems and roads. He said that businesses, including grocery stores, are incentivized to move into areas with already strong infrastructure and more disposable income. In some cases, they are physically unable to move to areas that lack infrastructure.

Plan East Gainesville, a 2003 study funded by Alachua County, the City of Gainesville and other entities, states that “East Gainesville has experienced declining population and limited economic investment since the 1960s, when I-75 was developed to the west of Gainesville. ”

Hall said that governments across the U.S. have not incentivized grocery chains to open in areas of town where citizens of lower socioeconomic status live.

“There’s a tax on access to food,” he said. “A lot of these folks have to drive further or take public transit, which is time, which is money. So they have to pay a little bit more for better food.”

Gainesville City Commissioner Craig Carter said he has “no doubt” that the city has plans to address its food deserts.

He and Gainesville Commissioner Charles Goston have been negotiating with a large grocery retailer to open in East Gainesville. He declined to specify what store it was, but said he would be very “aggressive on accommodating a grocery store on that side of town, because quite frankly, you have a great customer base over there.”

He continued, “There’s no reason that our citizens on the east side of Gainesville don’t get the privilege of shopping at a store just as all the other citizens of Gainesville do.”

Carter said there are plans to create incentives to lure the grocery chain to Southeast Hawthorne road in East Gainesville, including further developments to Gainesville Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC) and the reconstruction of Kennedy Homes, an affordable housing complex that was torn down in 2007. But he added that there are no commitments at this point.

He said stores are also worried that if they open in East Gainesville, it will detract business from the “Main Street” stores. While Carter said he was unsure of why it is so difficult to attract grocery chains to East Gainesville, he speculated that perception factors into the decisions.

“We want to have equality throughout the city,” Carter said, “whether that’s through grocery stores, transportation or jobs. So if we have a food desert or a disparity in some place, I think as commissioners, we need to try to address that. And sometimes you can’t.”

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Vostrejs and her children Gabriel, 16 months; Anastasya, 4, and Starr, 9, live in one bedroom in the Arbor House, a transitional home for homeless single women and those with children, which they have occupied for over a month now. The house is less than a ten-minute walk to Ward’s Supermarket. She is not technically located within a food desert, but she faces similar transportation problems to those of community members impacted by food deserts.

Vostrejs doesn’t have a car, and the only chance she has to make a full shopping trip is when her mother lends hers for a day or so, usually every two weeks. Because her kids have asthma and walking with the groceries is tough, she said having a car has helped a lot.

When she needs one or two items, Vostrejs might walk to Ward’s, but the food can be expensive, and she can only buy what will fit in the baby stroller. Ward’s also does not supply baby care items or paper goods like paper towels. If she absolutely needs to, Vostrejs must take the Route 15 Regional Transit System bus, then transfer to the Route 8 bus to make it to the Wal-Mart on Waldo Road. She said it can take an hour to commute to the store each way. By car, it takes no more than 15 minutes. And traveling by bus, she can only buy as much as she can carry, which severely limits the amount of food she can purchase.

“If you don’t plan correctly,” she said, “it gets hard at the end of the month.”

Those who rely on buses also have to consider the RTS system’s reduced routes around holidays. From Dec. 19 to Jan. 3, RTS cut service for 13 buses, not including campus buses or Later Gater routes, according to a December RTS press release. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s day, the release states, only 11 buses ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“There’s a tax on access to food,” he said. “A lot of these folks have to drive further or take public transit, which is time, which is money. So they have to pay a little bit more for better food.”

About $11.5 million of the RTS budget is paid for by University of Florida student fees, along with agreements with Santa Fe College and UF Health Shands, Commissioner Carter said. Hall said that makes the bus system’s routes more campus-centric. He added that although there should be more access to RTS buses for people on the outskirts of the city, overall RTS does a good job with the resources it has.

In the 2015 fiscal year, Route 20 from the Reitz Union to the Oaks Mall had the greatest ridership of any route, with more than 1.1 million passengers, according to the RTS 2015 ridership report. Route 12 from the Reitz Union to Butler Plaza ranked second-highest for passengers with over 755,000, according to the same report.

Because food deserts are characterized by lack of access, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Family Nutrition Program goes inside food deserts to help alleviate the problem. The program provides free nutrition education services for people who are eligible for SNAP assistance.

Qwamel Hanks, an extension program assistant for the FNP in Alachua County, said series-based curriculums like the “Cooking Matters” course target areas with a community clubhouse or family resource center. Other outreach programs, according to the program’s website, are held at the Union Street Farmers Market, St. Francis House and Alachua County Library Headquarters downtown, among other places.

“It’s not just teaching people how to shop for healthy foods,” she said. “A large component of it is teaching them how to do it on a budget.”

Hanks said the FNP does not focus on curricula that cover strategies for accessing healthy foods — the focus is more on identifying healthy foods and teaching where to find them. It also does not provide transportation to program activities.

“For the participants I have had that are in food deserts, not having that easy access to nutrient-dense foods leads them to go to the gas station or wherever is the closest to whatever kind of food they can get,” she said. “Of course, it’s totally understandable. That strained access alone, I see, is a significant contributor as to why people make the choices they do.”

The courses the program does offer have made a difference in Vostrejs’ buying habits, she said. She attends Hanks’ “Cooking Matters” course and said she has learned about buying smarter: purchasing foods in season; comparing unit prices and serving sizes; and evaluating the nutritional values of canned and boxed items.

She said she tries to make healthy food choices but struggles to budget for balanced meals that can last a long time.

Pretty soon, Vostrejs will have the relief of sending her two youngest children off to school — one to daycare and one to preschool. This way, Vostrejs won’t have to provide breakfast and lunch for her kids on weekdays because they qualify for free meals at school.

And she is always looking to the future. On the drive back to the Arbor House from Wal-Mart — the entire shopping trip took an hour and a half and cost $232.78 — Vostrejs saw someone riding a bicycle with a cart attached on the back.

Looking at it, thinking of how she could pull her kids and groceries in the cart, she cried out, “I’d love to have one with a seat on it!”