The United States produces more food now than ever, but 30 to 40 percent of it goes to waste. At the same time, more than 29 million people in the United States lack regular access to affordable and nutritious food. [i] Nearly ten percent of the population reside in a food desert, an area characterized by “limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.”[ii] Indeed, the conventional food system provides inequitable access to healthy and fresh foods, particularly among people living in “impoverished neighborhoods and those of color.” As a consequence, members of these communities suffer obesity and diet-related illnesses at rates higher than national averages.[iii]
The USDA has recognized food deserts as a pressing matter, but policy outcomes have fallen short. One primary shortcoming is the inability to define and locate food deserts. For example, the typical practice of locating food deserts is to measure the distance between residents and sources of food using GIS data. This method fails to consider the perceived “social distance” to stores. It ignores perceptions of neighborhood boundaries, built environment, means of transportation, and safety.[iv] Local governments are better positioned to identify community needs and then coordinate targeted responses.[v]
Colleges and universities—both public and private—can help residents of food deserts meet their nutritional needs. For example, the nation’s 1,132 community college are community-based organizations with direct connections to food insecure populations. In one study, 56% of community college students experienced food insecurity.[vi] The community college is not limited to serving populations enrolled as students, however. The community college has a record of focusing efforts of nonprofits, business, faith organizations, schools, and community agencies on pressing community issues.[vii] From addressing water quality and public utilities to problem-solving nutrition and childcare, the community college has formed coalitions to address local problems that extend beyond an instructional mission.[viii] And though the community college is a local organization, it has a national impact. Community colleges’ proximity to food deserts has not been examined, but its wide geographical dispersion suggests a major point of intersection: Ninety percent of Americans live within 25 miles of a community college.[ix]
In addition to community colleges, there are 3,011 baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities in the United States.[x] Many serve rural populations. The Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities lists more than 100 members, which operate in 52 major metropolitan areas. Colleges and universities are engaging communities in sustainable food systems, seeking to promote food justice through improved access to healthy food.
What can colleges and universities do to address food deserts? One way is to grow produce in campus gardens. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), community gardens may be found on the campuses of more than 100 colleges and universities. According to AASHE, “This ‘growing’ trend may help to lay the groundwork for a future where a network of farmers’ markets, food co-operatives, CSA (community supported agriculture) farms and community gardens will greatly reduce average food miles, and help us transition to a more sustainable food system.” It may also address the problem of food deserts.
The community garden at Guilford College is one example of a campus-based community supported agriculture. The small, private college is located within a large metropolitan area. The campus has been in operation for more than 179 years, and though Greensboro grew around the college, the campus is adjacent to three acres of cultivated farmland. Run by students, educators, and volunteers, the garden produces more than 10,000 pounds of healthy food each year.
A 5,000 square foot high tunnel allows campus gardeners to produce food year around. Most of the produce is served on campus through dining services or a student-operated farmer’s market; some is served in local restaurants; and some is delivered to local grocers. All soil amendments and pesticides are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Campus composting facilities also provide fertilizer for the garden, diverting up to 1,200 pounds of food waste from landfills every week. One result of these food production practices is that the quality likely surpasses that of mass produced food sold in supermarket chains.
Not all food deserts are in urban areas. Rural demographics present corporate grocery chains with unfavorable markets. Large supermarkets need a customer base of at least 20,000 to be profitable. Vinton County, a rural area in Ohio’s Appalachian region is home to only 13,000 residents, so it is not attractive to corporate grocers.[i] Residents either must purchase food from gas stations or dollar stores or travel long distances to shop at a grocery store. Many residents—particularly the elderly—do not have cars. Even those who do often cannot travel long distances in the winter when rural roads are often not plowed for weeks at a time. In 2014, Ohio State University partnered with other local organizations to create a community garden. Through this project the university provides fresh produce to what would otherwise be a food desert.
The conventional food system in the United States is a massive production, distribution, and consumption network. It is also a major source of waste. More critically, the system is inefficient when it comes to delivering food to all Americans. Rural and urban communities across the nation are food deserts. The USDA has recognized this problem, but the solution likely will be found at the local level. Colleges and universities are ideally positioned to cultivate fresh food in community gardens.
[i] OSU Starting Oasis in Food Desert, retrieved October 19, 2016 from http://thelantern.com/2016/02/osu-starting-oasis-in-food-desert/
[i] Michele Ver Ploeg et al., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Economic Research Report No. 143, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Updated Estimates of Distance to Supermarkets Using 2010 Data, at iii (2012), available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/ media/956784/err143.pdf.
[ii] DEP’T OF AGRIC., ACCESS TO AFFORDABLE AND NUTRITIOUS FOOD: MEASURING AND UNDERSTANDING FOOD DESERTS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES 1 (2009), available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/ Publications/AP/AP036/AP036.pdf.
[iii] Kameshwari Pothukuchi & Samuel A. Molnar, Sustainable food systems at urban public universities: A survey of U-21 universities, 37 Journal of Urban Affairs 341, 341 (2014).
[iv] Emily M. Broad Leib, All (Food) Politics Is Local: Increasing Food Access through Local Government Action, 7 Harvard Law & Policy Review 321(2013).
[v] Id. at.
[vi] Maya E. Maroto, et al., Food insecurity among community college students: Prevalence and association with grade point average, 39 Community College Journal of Research and Practice 515(2015).
[vii] Edgar John Boone, Community leadership through community-based programming: The role of the community college (Community College Press. 1997);Edgar John Boone, Community-based programming: An opportunity and imperative for the community college, 20 Community College Review (1992).
[viii] Edgar John Boone, et al., Community-based programming in action: The experiences of five community colleges (Community College Press 1998).
[ix] Arthur M. Cohen, et al., The American community college (Jossey-Bass 6th ed. 2013).
[x] National Center for Educational Statistics, retrieved October 19, 2016 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_317.10.asp