Lexington needs a strategy to tackle its food-desert problem

Rebecca Self of FoodChain, an urban agriculture nonprofit, posed in 2015 with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in an aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants.
Rebecca Self of FoodChain, an urban agriculture nonprofit, posed in 2015 with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in an aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants. teblen@herald-leader.com

With the election over, I found myself particularly disappointed at the results in the at-large city council races. I don’t doubt that the victors will do well, but a position taken by one of the unsuccessful candidates, Adrian Wallace, made me sad to see that he had not won a seat.

Wallace gave special attention to a serious national issue we experience right here in Fayette County — food deserts.

A mapping program available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website known as the Food Access Research Atlas1 shows that large swaths of Lexington neighborhoods are more than a mile from the nearest grocery store, including the East End, North Lexington and around the Versailles Road corridor. Some rural communities within Fayette County are more than 10 miles from their nearest grocery shopping option.

Through various church mission projects, I have seen a number of efforts that combat hunger and poor access to healthy food in urban areas. I was reminded of this issue when Lucky’s Market, the nearest option for me, closed in May. I found myself grumbling at the mile or so that I now have to drive to get groceries.

I am still lucky in some sense. My work schedule is flexible; I can take my own vehicle and get to the store at whatever hour is convenient for me. I also have only myself and my dog to feed. For our neighbors who lack these luxuries, the city and county must offer better options, regardless of who holds public office. Wallace emphasized that in issues of urban space and development, combating food deserts should be an integral part of creating vibrant and healthy communities within the urban services boundary.

How to handle this problem?

One might view with suspicion our most prominent local grocer, Kroger, since its stores, for whatever reason, are more convenient to wealthier, suburban communities. Recent steps by the company, however, show that it cannot seriously be seen as a villain. In Cincinnati, Kroger takes an active role within the community development corporation, 3CDC, helping to provide better food options to the city’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine areas.

Though the Herald-Leader recently ran stories about how the food-desert crisis was exacerbated by Kroger closings in towns like Macon, Ga., we have better reason to view the company as a potential friend.

Even so, new evidence points to the fact that grocery stores are not the only factor affecting food deserts. Earlier this year, the National Bureau of Economic Research cast doubt on equal access to groceries as a sure step to combating hunger and poor nutrition. Even if people now living in food deserts were to receive new grocery stores or better transportation, the agency’s study shows, new options do not necessarily translate to better nutrition and health in disaffected communities.

Lexington already has a number of encouraging start-up operations addressing this problem.

At West Sixth, FoodChain is using aquaponics technology to produce and promote healthy and responsibly sourced food in their community. A few blocks from West Sixth, North Farm is working to demonstrate the benefits of urban farm and garden operations.

But the city cannot limit itself to a few piecemeal operations if it means to tackle its food-desert issues. We will have to continue developing a network of available options for residents in these areas. And I understand if it doesn’t seem like the appropriate season to call for the planting of new gardens and urban farms.

But for the upcoming holidays, as you plan for the massive trip to the grocery store for all your meal prep (and the inevitable last-second trips when you need to pick up the odd items you forgot), remember that other families across town, through no fault of their own, will have a far more difficult time putting that food on the table.

Carson Benn is a University of Kentucky doctoral student in history. Reach him at benncarson9@gmail.com