Before coming to college, I thought the word desert referred to hot, dry, barren lands where you had fantasies of water and ice cold lemonade. I learned soon after arriving at La Salle that there was this thing called a food desert and not long before I arrived, the area around La Salle was actually classified as one.
According to this incredible Tedx Talk, a food desert is a large, isolated geographic area that have no or distant mainstream grocery stores. Mari Gallagher, the leader of that particular talk about food deserts, notes how 9-year olds she met in Alabama has never seen grapes or strawberries before. Can you imagine? I can think of so many other fruits that are far more exotic and rare.
The same sort of issue- perhaps not as drastic- was occurring in the area around La Salle. Finally, the University realized that in order to stay true to the values of the Christian Brothers, they had to step in. With the help of La Salle’s program, Exploring Nutrition, the surrounding community has seen vast improvements in the availability of fresh produce, meat, and opportunities for nutrition education. La Salle was the main driving force behind the introduction of the Fresh Grocer to the area and since then, Exploring Nutrition has been pressing even further into the issue of health and nutrition in urban areas. They’ve partnered not only with Fresh Grocer, but local businesses and churches, to provide the resources, education and awareness needed to push families to a more healthy lifestyle.
The inclusion of education programs is undeniably important. Check out this NPR radio piece to understand why. As the old saying goes, you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. You can build a grocery store lined with fresh produce, but if the consumers don’t know how to prepare them or why they need to include them in their diet, the demand slips. You can’t force people to purchase healthy items. Exploring Nutrition’s educational and awareness proponents try to bridge this gap and create that demand.
The best part, in my opinion, about this initiative is the way the leadership (spearheaded by Dr. Marjorie Allen) is involving students. They’re taking advantage of all of the resources on campus to help the community. Why enlist professionals to create promotional materials when you have digital art, marketing, and journalism students who are looking for resume worthy experience? It gets the students involved in something that can add credibility to their portfolios and resumes, but it also shows them ways to participate in charity that are outside of the typical picking up trash, donating clothing, working at a homeless shelter, and so on. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
There are, however, researchers who negate the effect of food deserts on the health of individuals living in poverty, claiming the stressors of living in poverty are actually to blame. The evidence is there all right, but, in all honesty, when is providing people with healthier food options ever a bad thing?