How Can You Help Environmental Justice Communities Create an Oasis in a Food Desert?

By Ann Carroll

It’s a simple question. How far do you have to go to get healthy food?

I’m lucky. I can walk eight blocks to get to a full service grocery store. If I bike in the other direction, I have even more options: a Latino food market and a grocery store full of organic vegetables, fruits, and other healthy options. In a pinch, Swiss chard from my garden becomes a meal of fresh greens.

While many people associate environmental justice with reducing pollution problems, access to healthy food is just as essential for public health as well. In many urban and rural areas, families may have a long journey to get healthy, fresh foods. The ‘Food Desert’ as it is now called, is an area where residents don’t have easy access to fresh food. While the definitions and distances vary in a city or rural area, the idea is the same: Getting healthy food is hard work in a food desert.

Many brownfields communities also are ‘food deserts’ where options for getting healthy foods are difficult. Brownfields are abandoned properties or vacant lots where the presence or potential presence of environmental contamination prevents reuse.#

In the last few years, the EPA, our state and tribal partners and community leaders have highlighted how brownfield communities can change their ‘food environment’ as part of site. They are putting brownfields to new healthy uses that improve food access in underserved areas, contributing to public health and economic development.

You can learn how former brownfields are becoming supermarkets, farmer’s markets, urban farms, community gardens, and even food banks. Take a look at the resources we’ve developed from projects or those of our Superfund colleagues.

Do you live in a food desert? These maps from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) can help connect you to your food environment.

You can help your community see that vacant building or abandoned gas station in a new way. It may be a brownfield now, but it can improve food access in your community. You can work with local officials to pick safe garden sites and learn what vacant lots to avoid due to likely environmental contamination. Talk to your city or town about whether a brownfield grant can fund assessing or cleaning lots or structures to become the supermarket, greenhouse, garden, urban farm, farmers market or a healthier grocery store you need.

About the author: Ann Carroll has a science and public health background and has worked on environmental health issues in the US and internationally for close to 30 years and with the EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization for the last ten years. She helps communities assess and clean brownfields and plan for their safe reuse. Ann is working on a doctorate in environmental health and is a Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for a Livable Future.

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