Agriculture in the food deserts (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
There are considerable conversations in the United States concerning how we can get the best offerings that agriculture provides into the marketplace where people everywhere, regardless of income, can have affordable access.
On its face, this challenge seems like it should be readily solvable.
We live in the country that grew from its agricultural bounty into the world’s greatest powerhouse efficiently bringing to market food at low cost.
Yes, we absolutely have the capacity to produce high-quality nutritious food offerings to feed every family in America and much of the world.
Here in the Garden State, we grow several crops in so many categories. Most farmers reading this publication know the statistics which are truly impressive.
New Jersey consistently ranks in the top 10 in the country in crop production for many fruits and vegetables: peaches, tomatoes, spinach, blueberries, sweet corn, cucumbers, cranberries, peppers, and so on down the list.
And yet, while you can regularly find these items in most supermarkets, farmers markets, roadside stands and any number of outlets, there are gaping holes.
The USDA and the federal government labels these “underserved” areas Food Deserts.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service defines a “food desert” this way: “An area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20 percent or a median family income not exceeding 80 percent of the statewide median family income in non-urban areas.”
In order to qualify as a food desert, an area must also meet certain other criteria.
In urban areas ,at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of rural census track).
There are upwards of 300,000 residents that have limited access who fit the criteria of living in the approximately 130 food deserts in our state.
Fortunately, there are a great number of non-profits and government programs that are available to ensure that those in need and who are food insecure can get help and assistance.
Several federal, state, county and local agencies work together to coordinate many of these efforts — and the current work that is being done in New Jersey is impressive and well done.
Looking at the actual designated underserved areas from a marketplace perspective, there are many reasons to be factored as to why there are not more options to choose from when shopping for food.
The list has a menu of several impediments expressed over the years of studying this issue: lack of transportation, higher crime rates, less disposable income, and limited demand pull, are examples of what is often expressed.
At the same time though, there are plenty of food offerings, but not the right kinds.
A lot of fast-food selections marketing poor choices loaded with empty nutritional values saturate the neighborhoods.
As I mentioned in my opening, there is much talk by the groups, but there are not enough farmers, packers, distributors, and retailers at the table.
Business operators know that to have a truly sustainable marketplace there has to be demand to be fulfilled and matched with appropriate supply.
Without balanced demand and supply for the foods we are trying to stream into food deserts/swamps, the existing cycle of what is available just repeats, and the patterns stay fully entrenched.
During the height of COVID-19, when thousands of outlets closed, traditional logistics faltered, and many elements of the supply chain had to be re-engineered to meet a crisis.
There was a giant pivot that took place.
Farmers began to schedule farm pick-ups. Home delivery was ramped up.
Wholesale distributors fabricated retail operations. Farm stands popped up everywhere to serve the public.
The ingenuity was breathtaking to witness, and the systems were developed and worked to a tee.
I say this because talking about food insecurity in general is also where the farming community could be helpful in the current food desert discussions.
There are examples around the country that farmers may have seen that could work to better solve this issue.
New formats, pilots, and co-ops do exist where farmers are in the mix helping to make a local system work to satisfy a true need.
I encourage you to participate and engage, and not wait for others to arrive at conclusions they think might be the answer to the problems of food insecurity.
You need to be up front and working on this in these communities.
Let us know at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture where we can help you get your ideas expressed and your voices heard.