The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts. For city dwellers, that means there is not a grocery store within walking distance. In rural areas, it means people have to drive more than an hour to get fresh produce.

Marian Peele, program director at the Capital Area Food Bank, says food deserts are usually poor neighborhoods where stores are reluctant to locate for various reasons.

"They’re there to make money," she said. "Often there’s an idea the folks aren’t going to make money in those areas. Not that people don't need food, but that people won't access it in the ways that other populations will. There may be other issues — concerns of criminal activity and cost [increases] for those retail establishments."

Capital city food deserts

Of the 40 or so grocery stores in Washington, D.C., that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, more than a quarter are in just one area: the well-to-do section of the city. Washington's poorest neighborhood has only three groceries.

To counter that situation, Bread for the City, a poverty-fighting organization, began a gleaning project three years ago. Every Sunday it sends a team to an upscale farmers market to collect leftover, unsold fruits and vegetables.

Keith Lemons, the organization's gleaning coordinator, says they have official partnerships with two local farmers markets, which provide hundreds of kilos of produce per week for distribution among low-income residents.

“I like to get them different things, like a variety of things, like squash, greens, and sometimes I get them stuff they don’t know about," he said.

The work is personal for Lemons, who grew up in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"I know how it is," he said. "It’s a struggle out here, and everybody doesn’t have the means or support in their life.”

At Bread for the City distribution centers, volunteers bag the produce, which is free for those living in food deserts. Volunteer coordinator Chris Jensen says the idea is to provide a healthier alternative to corner shops, fast food, and canned meals from food banks.

“We serve between 2[00] to 600 people every day," he said. "We really see ourselves as one of the solutions for people accessing fresh, healthy foods in the city.” 

Until the situation changes, organizations like Bread for the City provide an oasis in an urban food desert.