SXSW Panel Highlights Potential Solutions to National Food Desert Problem


  • Lea Thompson
Hundreds of SXSW attendees were present for the Food Desert Dilemma event on Monday. The panel discussion, moderated by Sam Oches, focused on the leaders, organizations and communities fighting against food deserts — traditionally low-income communities that lack access to healthy and affordable foods — found in cities throughout the nation, challenging attendees to become part of the solution.

Asha Walker, Health in the Hood // The Miami-based nonprofit, Health in the Hood, transforms vacant lots and unused urban spaces into community gardens. The organization has opened gardens throughout South Florida since 2013, providing free healthy food and food education to low-income communities, and teaching individuals how to grow their own gardens.

"Gardens have this unique way of breaking down barriers... when you change the landscape with the neighborhood it can [result in lasting change]," Walker said. "Not everyone has a garden in their own backyard, but they could."

Food Challenge: Begin to see your surrounding landscape as an asset — whether that's unused building rooftops or an empty parking lot.

Olympia Auset, SÜPRMARKT // An organic grocery service, SÜPRMARKT, makes healthy foods accessible to low-income communities, while providing food education opportunities, in Los Angeles.

Auset noted that crops like soy and corn, which are subsidized by the U.S. government, have become cheaper food options for shoppers and why fast food restaurants are able to offer such low prices on unhealthy meals.

Panel members pointed out that fast food conglomerates are run by the same people who make decisions at the USDA too. "It’s still expensive to eat healthy because small farmers with healthy foods don't get that same support from the government," Auset said.

SÜPRMARKT is also working to shift cultural food expectations — celebrating cultural foods and traditions with healthy food, and demanding better food options.

"If you can't change [what you put on your plate] then why do you expect politicians to change [our food system]?" she said.

Food Challenge: Check out food documentaries like Forks over Knives and Food Inc., and begin to talk with friends and family about food sources and eating habits.

Sam Polk, Everytable // A former hedge fund trader, Polk founded Everytable as a grab-and-go restaurant based in Los Angeles, bringing healthy and affordable meals to food desert communities.

"There's a big misconception that poor people in undeserved communities like fast food, but it’s that they like the [cheap prices]," he said.

Though Everytable was developed to benefit low-income communities, the business has grown to include eight locations in a variety of socio-economic areas.

"We opened stores [with higher prices] in more affluent areas, expecting those stores to make up for losses at [stores with lower prices]," he said. "It turns out that the stores in the low-income communities are the most profitable... the more scale and volume you [produce], the cheaper [the food becomes]— you can still make a great profit."

Food Challenge: Look for food entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders who are looking to bring their ideas to life, and commit to investing in them or supporting local organizations on a monthly basis. This is "a structural problem," he said. "There’s just been a tendency to blame the victim."

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