When a Food Desert is a Food Island

When a Food Desert is a Food Island

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Treasure Island, Calif.— It offers fantastic views of the bay and cheap housing, but there is little fresh food to be found on Treasure Island, the manmade spit of land that lies just north of the Bay Bridge midway tunnel. Two small marts offer a bountiful selection of chips and soft drinks, but just four apples, one orange and a handful of peppers were available on a July morning for the island’s fourteen hundred residents.

The island is one of several Bay Area neighborhoods labeled by the US Department of Agriculture as a ‘food desert,’ areas characterized by both high poverty rates and limited access to grocery stores. Other Bay Area food deserts include parts of San Francisco’s Bayview, and neighborhoods in Oakland and Richmond.

A former Pan Am airport and naval base, Treasure Island is now primarily residential, but also hosts a winery and job corps center. Nearly 40 percent of residents are considered low-income, according to the USDA.

London Watson, a Treasure Island resident, offered her freezer as a sample of island life, holding her daughter’s small Chihuahua in her arms in front of the open freezer door. Watson’s strategy can be summed up as buy in bulk, then freeze—Eggos, corn dogs, Hot Pockets—though, to balance things out, she also had strawberries and salad mix on hand.

Most of her food comes from Safeway in San Francisco, but it’s a long trip from her
island apartment, and she said that it is frustrating not to be able to buy food staples without traveling across the Bay.

“If you go (to the local market) for cereal or milk you’re going to pay five dollars if you get a gallon, so I stack up on stuff when I go to Safeway so I don’t run out,” she said.

Bulk purchases often rot, she said.

While many residents said they leave the island to buy groceries, at times they rely on the provisions available at the Treasure Island Mini Mart and the Island Market & Deli.

“There’s probably a bunch of people that go in there and buy the pre-made chimichangas and burritos because that’s just what’s available, it’s the easiest,” said Anida Hodzic, a Treasure Island teenager who was wearing pink shades and awaiting the San Francisco bound Muni bus to attend summer school. “You don’t see a lot of people with groceries on the bus,” she added.

In a pinch, pizza is available from the Oasis Café—free delivery for island residents.

But insufficient access to fresh food is a significant problem for many mainland dwellers as well, particularly for people in low-income communities. Twenty three million Americans live in so-called food deserts, according to the USDA, and lack of access to fresh food contributes to high levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses.

This problem is increasingly gaining the attention of state and federal governments and local advocacy groups.

Last week, a consortium of businesses and advocacy groups launched a new fund called California FreshWorks, a $200 million dollar investment pool that will provide favorable loans and grants to grocers who wish to set up shop in underserved neighborhoods or to existing businesses that plan to expand fresh food offerings.

The fund is modeled on an existing program in Pennsylvania and President Obama has called for providing federal funding for a national Healthy Food Financing Initiative in his 2012 budget.

“It’s a desert because there is no food there, but that means there is an opportunity because there is demand and then there is lack of competition,” said Tina Castro, Director of Mission Related Investments at the California Endowment, in a promotional video. (Disclosure: The California Endowment is also a funder of New America Media).

For more than one million California residents, access to fresh produce is at least a 20-minute drive away, according to FreshWorks research.

The fund already has dozens of potential projects at various stages of planning that are currently being evaluated by FreshWorks. They are getting ready to send out their first loan offer, according to Castro.

But while access to fresh food is a significant barrier, Castro acknowledged that expanding fresh food offerings is only part of the solution.

“There is no one silver bullet but I think, if we know anything from public health, it takes a multitude of approaches,” she said.

On Treasure Island, a job corps program offers training and housing to individuals seeking to launch careers in fields such as carpentry, security, or culinary arts.

The program has its own organic garden and, during breaks, aspiring chefs can be seen with white aprons and hats walking on the island—chefs who, after fourteen months, may be able to return to their communities and teach neighbors not just the importance of vegetables, but how to prepare them too.

"To the culinary students, it will allow us to introduce the concepts of the local food movement and farm-to-table strategies, and give the trainees a greater exposure to and deeper knowledge of their ingredients," said Corey Block, Urban Farm Coordinator, in a written statement provided by the Job Corps.

But, for now, food eaters on Treasure Island must content themselves with the local markets or drive to the mainland.

During an interview with one resident, a red SUV pulled up, a tourist, asking whether there was a grocery store near by. Not really, the resident replied, but pointed to the snack shack down the Avenue of the Palms.

They have chips and there are snacks there, she said.