Food Deserts

The world that we live in today can be a scary place if you are an American living at or below the poverty level. And the fact of the matter is, approximately 12.7 percent of Americans are living at poverty level in this country (US Census Bureau, 2017). That means that almost 41 million people may not know where their next meal is going to come from. Even though our country is good at assembling services for those in need, what they have yet to figure out is how to get one of our most basic needs, food, out to the masses. However, in Bergen County, New Jersey, this is not the case.

Food deserts are defined by the USDA as “parts of the country [usually urban areas] vapid of fresh fruits, vegetables, or other healthful, whole food options (“USDA Defines Dood Deserts”).  In northeastern New Jersey, these food deserts cannot be found. A quick search of supermarkets in a five mile radius of Oakland, New Jersey will turn up seventeen stores to choose from, with five of those seventeen being super Stop & Shops. Of the remaining twelve markets, three are designated as farmer’s markets, and one is a dollar store. 

In addition to the seventeen supermarkets found within five miles of Oakland, there are five “farms”. These range from farms which offer a full selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, to farms that host a small farm stand where they sell a small variety of the same, ranging from fresh farm to Jersey tomatoes. Two of these farms also offer farm fresh eggs and locally sourced milks, cheeses, and butters, in addition to a range of grass-fed meats at a decent price.

Finally, towns surrounding Oakland host frequent, if not weekly, farmer’s markets where farmers and other local vendors converge to sell their homemade, farm grown, locally sourced goods and services. Vendors at the Ramsey Farmers Market, for example, range from organic farms selling greens and different root vegetables and sprouts, to homemade hummus, guacamole, and soups, to breads and even plant stands. This market is open from June through March every Sunday, and is less than ten miles from Oakland, New Jersey.

The closest urban area to Oakland is Paterson, about ten miles away, where approximately 147,000 people reside (as compared to Oakland, which has a population of around 13,000 residents). The estimated median household income in Paterson is $36,146, which is about $40,000 less than the average median household income of the state of New Jersey at $76,126 (“Paterson, New Jersey”). Compared to Oakland, there are approximately twenty supermarkets that show up in a quick Google search of “supermarkets within five miles of Paterson”. Of the twenty, three are C-Towns, and the rest are small cultural shops, such as Al Madina Supermarket. According to Wikipedia, C-Town stores open in locations that suburban stores have abandoned. They rely mostly on foot traffic, and operate based on economies of scale, which drives down the cost of purchasing and advertising for smaller stores.

When my family moved to Oakland, we took into consideration a couple of different factors. First, we wanted to live somewhere that there was green space. We consider ourselves to be “outdoors people”, and we wanted to live in a place filled with farmlands, hiking trails, and fishing spots. Oakland fit that bill. In addition, we wanted to be somewhere still in Bergen County, where the proximity to affluence made the school systems some of the top in the nation. Oakland fit that bill, too. So when we grocery shop now, we can afford to be picky. I mostly shop for our fruits and vegetables at a local farm or farmer’s market, and anything else that we need I order from online boutique health shops, such as Thrive Market. That being said, I lived in a town that was a food desert for a period of time, and worked in one, too. In those towns, fast food places are rampant, as are C-Towns and smaller markets with less than desirable options.

We are fortunate to be in a situation where living in a food desert will never be a reality for us. After reading The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, it is safe to say that it is a poor state of affairs in the more urban areas when it comes to the most basic of all needs: food. McMillan states, “When we build a new city, the public sector works to make sure that certain needs are met safely and affordably: roads, water, electricity, telephones. But...America has traditionally done nothing to make sure there is also food in that new city” (McMillan, 2012). With the introduction of farmers’ markets we appear to be moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

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