Irving—Food deserts, urban areas where residents find it difficult to obtain high-quality, nutritious food, are an unfortunate reality across the country. As part of its Changemakers Series, the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual discussion about Food deserts on Thursday, May 27.
Gary Huddleston, a retired former executive at Kroger, moderated the discussion, which also featured Dr. Chris Dowdy, vice president of Academic Affairs at Paul Quinn College, and Dr. Valerie Hawthorne, director of Government Relations for North Texas Food Bank (NTFB).
“If more than one-third of the population is more than a mile from a grocery store, it’s a food desert,” Hawthorne said. “It’s not a grocery store problem. It’s [due to] bad transportation, low supply, low demand, high poverty.”
Dr. Hawthorne described how NTFB, which serves 13 counties in North Texas, was distributing about 1 million pounds of food weekly before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the start of the pandemic, NTFB has distributed 3.5 million pounds of food per week. She also described how hunger is not solely an urban issue. It also happens in rural areas, which presents its own set of challenges.
During the pandemic, NTFB held large-scale food distributions at venues like Dallas Fair Park, and Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. But with the coronavirus waning, the agency is shifting away from those big events to smaller ones with a more personal feel.
Dowdy described the We Over Me Farm, which Paul Quinn started just over a decade ago on the school’s former football field and the program’s many successes.
“We realized the surrounding neighborhood didn’t have anything decent to eat,” Dowdy said. “You could get a banana at the Valero down the street, but that was about it for fresh food near the college. We determined to solve that problem. We shared with the neighborhood.
“[The farm] has grown to five or six acres. We have an orchard. We pull 6,000 pounds of food out of the ground a year at least. We donate about 15-20 percent of the food. The rest we sell to our neighborhood or our largest vendor, Legends Hospitality, who does the food service at AT&T Stadium.”
The farm has benefitted the college as a revenue generator and the surrounding community by helping make fresh, healthy food available and by attracting new retail tenants near the college.
“We don’t send many football players to the NFL, but we send a lot of kale,” Dowdy said.
Another subject addressed was the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
SNAP is an avenue for low-income individuals to get food. However, during the pandemic and now heading into the post-pandemic world, the program has some issues for those who need the assistance most.
“You can now use your SNAP card at a lot of retailers, but [SNAP] doesn’t pay delivery fees,” Hawthorne said. “There’s opportunity for funders, community foundations and others to open programs to pay delivery fees for families to use their SNAP cards and get home delivery.”
But another issue remains for individuals and families who utilize SNAP.
“The most expensive thing for a lot of our families is time,” Hawthorne said. “Yes, you can get food delivered, but you still need time to prepare that food.
“As we see SNAP cards evolve to be able to purchase premade, healthy meals, I think we will see the nutrition of our communities increase. I’d like to see that option be brought larger to our communities in need, so they can have those premade foods.”
Current SNAP regulations in Texas prohibit program participants from purchasing hot food. However, several grocers have found a way around this, moving foods like rotisserie chickens, normally served hot, into their coolers, so SNAP participants can purchase them.
Paul Quinn is also doing its part to eliminate food deserts through a unique grant program.
“I think [the impact of food delivery] could be really significant,” Dowdy said. “We’ve partnered with North Central Texas Council of Governments for a grant project on foodbots, robotic delivery within a narrowly defined area near the college and finding ways to automate the food delivery system.
“We see that as an area of potential growth. We think home delivery can be a really important aspect of how we transport the food accessibility network and landscape.”
As Hawthorne stated, hunger remains an issue that cannot be solved simply by giving food to those in need. It is an issue which goes much deeper than a simple lack of food, but it is one NTFB and its many partners remain committed to combatting.
“There’s no zip code that’s immune from hunger,” Hawthorne said.