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Hundreds of Phoenicians don’t have easy access to healthy food. Here’s what the city is doing to change that

The journey from Vernon Mathews’ apartment to the nearest supermarket is more than five miles.

But it’s not just the distance that makes the trip difficult. It’s all the little things. Coordinating bus schedules. Lugging heavy bags of fruits and vegetables. Spending the whole trip on the lookout. 

“I have to watch my stuff, because I don’t trust no one,” Mathews says. 

When the former county employee gets off the bus, another obstacle emerges: the walk from the bus stop to his Jackson Street apartment, located a mile south of downtown Phoenix.

It’s difficult because Mathews has trouble walking, and the unrelenting summer heat doesn’t help. 

Despite the extra effort, getting fresh food is important to Mathews. As a person with diabetes, he tries to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. He currently relies on twice-monthly visits in the area from the Farm Express bus, which carries fresh produce to stops throughout the Phoenix metro area. 

Mathews isn’t the only Phoenix resident who faces problems finding easy access to healthy food.

Forty-three swaths of the Phoenix metro area are designated food deserts, areas without close access to supermarkets. The only grocery sources in these areas may be corner stores or small shops that don’t provide the same access to fresh produce as larger stores. 

Arizonans are more likely to suffer from inadequate access to healthy food than residents in other states. The most recent data available found the percentage of people living in food deserts in Arizona is nearly three times the national average, though the definition of a food desert has changed slightly since the 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

To address this, the City of Phoenix is ramping up efforts to help people like Mathews have easier access to affordable, healthy food. 

This fall, the city will bring its first Food Action Plan to council for approval. The plan represents Phoenix’s first endeavor focused on the city’s food system as a whole and has been years in the making. If approved, Phoenix will implement its first comprehensive long-term plan focused on resolving food access issues this fall. 

It’s an effort that was largely spearheaded by city employees including Rosanne Albright. She helped put together the plan, which aims to address food access from all angles. 

“Just providing a grocery store doesn’t mean it’s going to improve healthy food access,” Albright says. “We also have to tackle those other things, like making sure people have a living wage and a job and safe streets and shade and all of those other kinds of things as well.” 

Meet the woman leading the effort 

Albright has long been a fixture of the city’s Office of Environmental Programs. Her 21-year career has examined different facets of environmental issues, from turning formerly contaminated brownfields into urban agriculture oases to managing the city’s air quality division. 

But when she learned that hunger continues to plague parts of the Valley, Albright decided to take a look into local food systems. 

“That was just not acceptable,”Albright says of hunger in the community. “It just was not.”

At the time representatives from different arenas of the food system had already been working to form a coalition, piecing together individual efforts to get a broader picture of food access work in the community. Albright stepped in to see how the city could get involved. 

The stakeholders ultimately united under one group, Maricopa County Food System Coalition, also known as MarCo. Their mission: improve the city’s food system for all. 

“Sometimes things are just not right and you gotta fix them,” Albright says. 

With an ear to food system stakeholders, Albright then got the ball rolling on food system work within the city.  

Tamra Ingersoll, public information officer with the city’s Neighborhood Services Department, credits Albright with bringing together different departments to focus on the issue. 

“We have 14,000 employees that all could have a little bit of the answer, so getting us all on the same page was probably the biggest, most crucial change I’ve seen,” Ingersoll says. 

The city has prioritized food access in past initiatives with mixed results. It first emerged as a focus in 2015 with PlanPHX. That general plan offered the broad goal of ensuring more residents lived within a quarter-mile of a healthy food outlet — whether it be a grocery store, farmers market or community garden. 

Then in 2016, the Office of Sustainability upped the ante with its city-wide sustainability goals, one of which was to eradicate food deserts in Phoenix by 2050. 

And just last year, the city took steps to improve food access in a small sector of the metro area and found success. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city a $30 million grant for a six-year redevelopment plan for the Edison-Eastlake Community, an area east of downtown. 

While the brunt of the plan focuses on redevelopment of three public housing sites, some provisions address food access issuesby offering nutrition education programs. This type of food-related effort from the city sets an example of how similar initiatives through the citywide plan could operate. 

But even with all these initiatives, only a few food deserts in the city have actually been erased in the last few years, Albright says.  

Now, she’s leading an interdepartmental team to put together a citywide plan to make change across Phoenix.

What are Phoenix’s food access issues? 

Food access is a multifaceted issue and solutions require looking beyond proximity to a grocery stores.

To eradicate food access problems, experts say cities and communities must take into account dining preferences, affordability and whether or not residents know how to prepare raw, healthy foods. 

Food deserts are one obvious area of focus for those working on food access. These sections of a city have a poverty rate of 20% or higher and at least 500 people or at least a third of the population living more than a mile from a supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

During the summer, Phoenix’s sweltering heat can make living in a food desert even harder. In triple-digit temperatures, even a short distance to the store can pose a challenge for those without a car. Especially for those carrying heavy grocery bags, walking along busy streets or possibly traveling with children or with mobility issues.

Research shows, however, that trekking to a supermarket is worth the hassle. In short: access to healthy affordable food affects health.

A 2016 study by the American Heart Association found better access to healthy food resources in a neighborhood may slow the development of coronary artery disease in older and middle-aged adults. Affordability is key part of the positive effect. A 2019 study found the link between food deserts and coronary artery disease was “largely driven by low area income, not poor access to food.” 

This is also why building more grocery stores isn’t always the best solution to food access issues, says Lauren Chenarides, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey Morrison School of Agribusiness. 

Chenarides is working on a paper set to come out later this year about perceived barriers to accessing healthy foods in the Northeast United States.

Chenarides says it’s important to look at consumer demand to understand preferences for healthy foods. Adding a new store to places where the community isn’t going to shift purchasing patterns could make it difficult for stores to stay in business. 

“Unless we start to break down or kind of tackle a lot of these perceptions in their totality instead of just saying, ‘Oh we’re going to isolate one,’ we might not ever really achieve the idea of incentivizing households, because there will always be something else,” Chenarides says. 

When it comes to using policy to tackle these problems, talking to community members about their experiences is essential, she says. That way, policies can accomplish what people need. 

“Policy is kind of like a tool in a tool box,” Chenarides says. “A hammer is not going to always work.” 

Here’s how the plan could change Phoenix

Albright hopes Phoenix’s Food Action Plan will be the multifaceted solution necessary to make a real impact on the city. To understand community needs, Albright spent the last 18 months gathering input from stakeholders across the food system, from farmers to families. 

Now, she’ll use that feedback as she drafts the action plan, which she expects to be up for council approval in September or October of 2019. 

Some of what she heard from community members lines up with Chenarides’s research on perceived barriers. Other input dealt with other pieces of the food access puzzle, for example, how the city can preserve land for agriculture so local farms aren’t pushed out. 

Adding grocery stores isn’t part of the proposal, but other solutions such as food education make up a significant portion of the recommended actions. 

Some of the proposed actions from a draft of the Food Action Plan include: 

  • Incorporating healthy food access to all future land use plans. 
  • Creating food education classes with partner organizations to teach community members how to grow food, where to get healthy food and how to cook it. 
  • Developing policies that plan for potential changes in climate, distribution patterns and political environments. 

The plan also will spotlight partner organizations working on food access issues, such as the Grocery Access Program. The program is a collaboration between Lyft and Bashas, as well as the United Way Valley of the Sun. 

The pilot program rolled out in May and offers residents of some low-income areas in Phoenix $2 rides to and from 16 Food City stores in Tempe, Phoenix and Glendale. Users can take up to 12 round trips each before the program ends on Sept. 1.   

To carry out the Food Action Plan, the city would also hire a full-time food system coordinator, who would implement the plan, look for grants for programs and collaborate with organizations, Albright says. 

The Farm Express bus: A community partner

On a hot Wednesday afternoon, the colorful Farm Express bus perches on the curb along a community center inside the Tanner Manor Apartment complex. Sand-colored buildings ring the complex, and just beyond the entrance gates, cars whizz past along Broadway Road.

The Phoenix senior living community is more than two miles away from the nearest supermarket. 

Launched five years ago, the Farm Express operates as a market on wheels. The concept helps people like Mathews, who may not live within close access to a grocery store, get easier access to fresh produce. 

When residents step into the busthe smell of fresh oranges greets them.  

The former city bus and its twin, both of which are outfitted as mini produce sections, travel to more than 100 neighborhoods and community gathering places throughout the Phoenix metro area every month. Where seats once existed now hang shelves of yellow bins, carrying produce such as pineapples, potatoes, packets of carrots and cartons of strawberries. Placards with nutritional information line the ceiling. 

Farm Express is just one example of outside organizations that have been working in the Phoenix food system for years. Now, as the city ramps up its food system work, it will enlist Farm Express as one of its partners to help meet its food access goals. 

Farm Express’s goal is to create a positive grocery shopping experience for customers, says Elyse Guidas, executive director of Farm Express.

“Just getting in the door is a barrier sometimes, but then what happens when the customers gets in the door is just as important,” Guidas says. 

When visitors do get in the door, they meet Kathy Hall. Hall has worked on the bus ringing up customers’ selections since almost the start of Farm Express in 2014. Customers have told her how much the bus helps them. 

“We hear it all the time, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, if it weren’t for you guys I would have to go so far to go to the supermarket,’ and stuff like that,” Hall says. “That makes you feel really great, to be able to bring a service to someone and they’re happy about it.”  

When customers peruse the yellow bins and stumble across a vegetable with which they aren’t familar, Hall is ready to hand out a brochure with instructions on how to cook it written in both English and Spanish. 

Farm Express also offers financial programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which gives SNAP users get an extra dollar to use on the bus for every dollar they spend there. After making a purchase, SNAP customers walk out the bus doors with tokens jingling in a green mesh pouch—money in their pocket to spend on produce at the bus’s next visit. 

Guidas acknowledges that mobile markets aren’t the only solution for food access but are part of a larger “array of choices” that help with community members’ food needs.

She points to the upcoming opening of a Fry’s location at First and Washington Streets, near several Farm Express stops, as an example. It will offer some area residents the groceries they need, but she says some customers will still prefer the Farm Express.

Case in point: The bus parks outside the Tempe Public Library every two weeks. Just across the street, visible from right outside the bus, a Walmart looms.

Still, on a recent Wednesday, people stepped into the air-conditioned Farm Express bus and walked out with bags of lemons, lettuce and more. It’s more convenient for people on their way out of the library, who can shop for produce without crossing a busy intersection to get to the Walmart store. 

Guidas says she’s excited for Farm Express to be able to help the city with the Food Action Plan.

“Once that’s up and running they’re going to need organizations to hit the ground running with how we’re actually going to implement some of those goals,” she says. 

“It’s the right thing to do” 

For Mathews, the downtown Phoenix resident who takes a bus to the nearest supermarket, better food access means being closer to a fresh produce provider. He makes do now with the twice-monthly visits from the Farm Express bus. On two Thursday mornings a month, the bus parks around the corner from his apartment building.

The bus cuts his grocery commute from five miles to a couple hundred yards. 

Mathews looks forward to this September, when Fry’s will open a long-awaited downtown location at First and Washington Streets. He plans to shop there regularly. 

But for those who aren’t getting a new grocery store nearby, or who have other barriers barring them from finding healthy food, Albright hopes the city can lend a hand with its new plan. 

“We have so much opportunity to not only grow food but also to make sure people have access to healthy food,” Albright says. “It just seems that it’s a no-brainer. It’s the right thing to do.” 

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