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Food deserts are islands where it’s sometimes hard to eat well

Tomatoes are still ripening on the vines at the Whitney Community Center community garden. Bees swarm around big pots of lavender. Corn grows impressively tall. Fruit trees have taken root. The garden teaches kids about the satisfaction of growing good healthy stuff to eat. But it’s not uncommon to see neighborhood residents at the garden, too, working or harvesting squash or berries, said Barbara English, site coordinator.

The Whitney Community Center, adjacent to Whitney Elementary School on the Boise Bench, sits in the middle of Boise’s sole “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency defines a food desert as a low-income area where a large percentage of residents live more than a mile in an urban area or more than 10 miles in a rural area from the nearest supermarket. Garden City has food deserts, as do Nampa and Caldwell.

Local advocates for access to healthy, affordable food are turning their attention to the Whitney neighborhood — bordered by Vista, Overland, Roosevelt and the New York Canal — and beyond. The Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger will host a public gathering Tuesday night to talk about residents’ access to good food and to brainstorm solutions. The city of Boise, too, is looking at food issues, taking a first-of-its-kind survey of food-related habits and choices in the nearby Vista neighborhood.

“My hope would be that there will be a thoughtful discussion,” said organizer Darcy James about the public gathering. “We’re going to assemble as many people as we can.”

Living far from healthy food sources leads to poor nutrition. That leads to a host of problems for adults and children, such as dental issues, obesity and diabetes, James said. That can mean higher health care costs for people and communities. James spent years in Uganda as an adult education teacher and has worked for a number of social justice causes. She wears her gray hair short and sports brightly colored tennis shoes that are good for walking. She’s put in the hours — on foot and on her bike — in the Whitney neighborhood. She’s met residents for whom getting healthy, affordable food is a challenge, including those who rely on city buses to get to the supermarket. That can pose its own challenge in a city such as Boise with limited public transportation hours and options.

“Food deserts are a difficult question. It has to do with free-market forces. You can’t dictate that someone set up a grocery store. We want to sketch out some self-help opportunities, things people are trying,” said James.

Some of those things: Community gardens, like the one at Whitney, and the Boise Farmers Market’s first mobile market that brought fresh local foods to low-income neighborhoods this past summer. The mobile market is among the topics to be discussed Tuesday, along with access issues at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Southwest Idaho — one of the areas of the state most challenged with food access.

PROMISING PROGRESS

Angie Gribble, a nutrition program manager for the state Bureau of Community and Environmental Health at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said Southwest Idaho, north-central Idaho and Camas, Clearwater and Idaho counties all have high numbers of food deserts.

“What we’re concerned about is not access to just any food, but affordable, nutritious foods,” said Gribble.

Promising programs are already in place to begin to promote access to healthy food in the Boise area, she said. Those include Blueprint Boise, the city’s comprehensive plan that promotes community-based agriculture, said Gribble. In 2012, the Boise City Council passed urban agriculture laws that increased the numbers of chickens and beehives that residents are allowed to keep within city limits. The mobile market is another highlight.

Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter, said the local chapter of the American Planning Association received a grant to study and make recommendations on how and where people in the Vista neighborhood are getting nutritious food. The study began in April and should be finished by early 2016. It has already revealed a web of existing services that might be enhanced, including faith-based organizations that collaborate to offer free dinners to residents in need nearly every night of the week.

The city’s Energize our Neighborhoods initiative in the Whitney/Vista neighborhood is a community project that is broader than food access, but does focus on economic development, transportation and health and community services that relate to food access, said Journee.

A separate food survey for Vista residents will be “the first time this type of information has been collected at a neighborhood level in Boise, and is something a lot of our partner organizations are looking at to see what it turns up,” said Journee. The city hopes to identify where residents go to shop and what kinds of foods they are looking for.

Households in the Vista area will receive postcards with the link to the city survey in the first part of October. The survey ends Oct. 31.

Gribble also advocates expanding land and leases for urban farmers on vacant land and developing a bus system that makes it easier for people without cars to get to the store. Communities can support food markets with tax incentives for stores in underserved areas, she said. Communities can also experiment with nontraditional grocery store models: Healthy Corner Stores, which is not yet in the Treasure Valley, is a pilot program on the East Coast by The Food Trust, a nonprofit devoted to food access. The program works with corner stores or convenience stores to find ways store owners can offer more nutritious foods by making small investments in storage and equipment and making small changes to their inventories.

“Boise in general has done a lot of work making itself a healthy community with good leadership and Blueprint Boise. There’s a lot of success to build on. We’re not just starting from scratch. Solving the problem of food deserts seems a doable ,” said Gribble.

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