Skip to content

Schools, food deserts, and tiramisu: EdNC’s search for common ground

When I first started looking into food deserts, I spelled it “desserts.” You know, like tiramisu. I knew a lot about desserts; not a lot about food deserts. At most, I thought of them as geographic locations devoid of grocery stores. That was weeks ago. I have learned so much.

The USDA defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” But that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about the problem. The areas affected by this issue are as diverse as the people in our state, and food deserts can apply to situations you might not normally expect.

The areas affected by this issue are as diverse as the people in our state, and food deserts can apply to situations you might not normally expect.

For instance, one expert I spoke with told me how an assisted-living center relatively close to a grocery store can, effectively, be a food desert. Think of it. If you are elderly, don’t have a car and aren’t very mobile, that nearby grocery store can be multiple stops away on a bus. And once there, how many groceries can you reasonably carry back to the center? Maybe you use a walker. What then?

I live near Southeast Raleigh — parts of which are classified as food deserts. A Food Lion and a Harris Teeter are pretty close to me…because I have a car. But without a car, these grocery stores might as well be across the ocean.

In the following weeks, we will be unveiling a multi-story project on food deserts. We went from Cape Hatteras to Conetoe, from farms to gardens, and even into the school lunchroom to investigate this issue. The project stems from a General Assembly legislative research commission that looked into this issue last session.

The commission came up with a variety of recommendations, which the legislature will hopefully consider this session. It looked at programs like innovative school breakfast, farm to school, and summer feeding programs, and the role they play in addressing the issue. The commission recognized that solving this issue isn’t simply a matter of building more grocery stores. It saw that the state’s schools are often the easiest way to get the state’s children healthy food. But all of these programs, as they currently work, have limitations. That’s where the General Assembly can help.

In many of my conversations, I heard that local governments, agencies, and communities are key to solving this issue. It’s obvious that food deserts aren’t going to be eradicated by the stroke of a legislative pen. But state lawmakers can take the initiative to draw attention to the problem and encourage localities to take action.

And this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s a human one.

And this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s a human one. In talking with one Republican lawmaker, he told me that neither party wants to see children go hungry or not have access to healthy food. He said both parties have common ground to build on. In a legislature that can sometimes seem to be a fierce tug of war between opposing ideologies, this is an issue that can and should let leaders drop the rope.

Our public schools touch the lives of nearly every inhabitant of our state. We look to them for education, but in times of deprivation, when the majority of public school students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, schools can be more.

Here’s hoping current lawmakers will embrace the possibilities and work together to help all of our children have access to the food they need to grow and learn.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.