“Where Groceries Get Taken for Granted”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 1, Volume 112

By Elio Torres 

On the eight-hour drive between Santa Fe and a pueblo in southern Utah, my family passed through the Navajo Nation, a parcel of land operated by Native American tribes. Hungry and parched, we stopped along the route to stock up our car with groceries for the drive. In our community of northern Brooklyn, an organic grocery store sits on every corner, but within the Navajo-run county, we could only find gas station convenience stores. The tribal government has tried to promote healthy eating, removing a five percent tax on fruits and vegetables, but in the nation the size of West Virginia, there are only 10 grocery stores. Even worse, 80 percent of the inventory at these grocery stores is considered junk food. Navajo Nation, cemented in the Great Basin Desert on the Colorado Plateau, is also a food desert.

A food desert, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, is a region where a third or more of the population lives more than a mile from a large grocery store. In the Navajo Nation, this describes 99 percent of the land. After my family struggled to find fresh groceries, we, like many tribal members, resorted to fast food off of the county road. At this fast food drive-thru, a regular soda came in a 32-oz cup with nearly 100 grams of sugar; an amount enough to supply my whole family was considered “regular.” However, the ramifications of meager access to healthy, fresh food suppliers are felt throughout the Navajo community. A third of the population has type 2 diabetes or is prediabetic. At the few grocery stores across the Navajo Nation, nutritious food is also significantly more expensive than the national average. In their year-long study, the First Nations Development Institute concluded that native towns, like the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, charged $1 more for milk and nearly $1.50 more for bread compared to the national average.

I returned home to a community that does not worry about food insecurity, more cognizant of the excess and waste that we produce. At the grocery store on my block, I notice that bruised fruits and vegetables often find their way into the dumpster when they could have been used or donated. In fact, an analysis conducted by the National Resources Defense Council found that 68 percent of all food discarded within Denver, Nashville, and New York City is still edible. Though nonprofits and food rescue organizations like City Harvest have joined the battle to repurpose food scraps, the local government needs to create city-wide infrastructure to mitigate food waste. The sanitation department opened a curbside composting program in 2017, helping individuals repurpose their food, but grocers and restaurants deserve a similar option. For grocery owners who would be happy to donate their goods, the primary obstacle is to whom and where. A food-matching program, much like the Whole Foods initiative to donate unsold goods to food pantries, would alleviate the stress on single shops wanting to go the extra mile with their scraps.

Finding homes and food banks to donate these gathered goods to would not be difficult. Food deserts, though they seem incompatible with urban areas that demand a high supply of food, are prevalent in New York City, notably Harlem, the South Bronx, and middle Brooklyn. An estimated 750 thousand New Yorkers live in food deserts, and another three million live in places where stores that sell produce are few or far away. Ironically, many of the large food processing and distribution centers, like Hunts Point in the South Bronx, are based in these neighborhoods, leaving air and water pollution for residents instead of food supplies. Many of these neighborhoods are instead powered by bodegas and corner stores that only serve chips, high-sugar drinks, and packaged sweets.

The placement of food deserts is also race-related. On average, white neighborhoods contain four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods do. An example of this inequality is expressed in the recent closure of a Key Foods on the border of Gowanus and Park Slope. The Key Foods located just a few blocks from the Wyckoff Gardens and the Gowanus housing projects has been a vital organ in the supply chain of fresh food in the area. It is also one of the few major grocery chains that accepts food stamps. It closed its doors this August after over a decade of supplying the community to make space for a mixed-use development project of 184 apartments and a 130-car parking garage. The Key Foods almost a mile away in the center of Park Slope, a predominantly white and affluent neighborhood, remains open for business.

Needless to say, the food supply network in New York City—and America at large—remains imperfect. While ensuring equal access of fresh produce to all communities is fundamental to public health, it is also important to recognize that the entire system has room for growth. Seemingly inconsequential decisions, like heavy government subsidization of corn and soybeans, have paved a culture of diabetes and obesity. Ultimately, it is our role as citizens to recognize that when we have food on our plates and grocery stores in our neighborhood, we should not take it for granted. Appreciate the selection and diversity of vegetables at your local grocery store because in food deserts like the Navajo Nation, those are a luxury.