Tackling food deserts

Household food insecurity has increased by almost one third over the course of the pandemic, with 39.4 million people in the US living in neighborhoods with limited fresh food access – known as a ‘food desert’.
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‘Food deserts’ are found in low-income neighborhoods – often neighborhoods of color, like the Bronx in New York or Germantown in North Philadelphia. 

Major grocery stores have a history of strategically avoiding low-income neighborhoods, so food-challenged households end up relying more on fast-food options or bodegas (small, independent convenience stores). But even bodegas often sell limited fresh produce. 

There are some clear ways that food and grocery businesses can start to accommodate lower-income communities, from setting up shop in more accessible locations close to public transport, employing local residents, sourcing ingredients from neighborhood farms, and working with community projects to lower costs for healthy meals.

Here are two local businesses doing the latter, to bring healthy food to the table for everyone.

Brain Food

Former bodega owner Ali Ahmed opened Brooklyn-based Brain Food in 2019, expanding to a second location in May 2021. Dubbed ‘a cleaned-up version of a bodega’, it serves nutritious $5 meals, partnering with ReThink, a non-profit tackling food insecurity.

After consulting with nutritionists, Ali develops classic, New York-style recipes and converts them into healthy alternatives. He often prioritizes vegan options, ‘to give people entry into diets they wouldn’t have normally tried before’, he says. ‘As I got older, I realized that healthy doesn’t have to mean expensive. Getting rid of that stigma, I’m hoping to lead the way for other companies to make the healthier options more affordable.’

Mina’s World 

Opened in February 2020 in West Philadelphia, Mina’s World is a coffee shop co-owned by Sonam Parikh and Kate Egghart that hosts The People’s Fridge just outside its doors. Sonam and their sister Sonia have coordinated the project, from sourcing the fridge, stocking it with donations and keeping it powered with electricity from the coffee shop. 

‘As a result of the pandemic, a bunch of supermarkets closed. Because we live in an area that’s underserved, a lot of people laid off employees to improve their shops. This created an extreme situation where finding food was becoming harder and harder,’ explains Sonam. As Mina’s World reopens post pandemic, The People’s Fridge remains available 24/7 to those who need it.  

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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