The roots of healthy food accessibility

The roots of healthy food accessibility

Food accessibility is a hard term to wrap our arms around. These examples show a grassroots approach to the problem, but there is something missing.

The concept of healthy food accessibility is coming into vogue these days. It’s a buzzword popping up in policy reports, international conferences and the mission statements of smartphone apps.

But, the issue is stuck in a dynamic akin to climate change. The phrase is easy to throw out but much harder to solve due to a messy web of interlocking causes and effects. Healthy food accessibility certainly encompasses the affordability of food and the physical availability of nutritious goods in nearby grocery stores. But the concept also acknowledges the need to impart a broader cultural appreciation and acceptance of healthy, wholesome foods and an appreciation of their benefits among consumers of all demographics.

“One of the challenges is showing the value proposition to lower income consumers,” said food accessibility consultant Mari Gallagher.

With so many factors at play, I decided to take a ground-level approach to exploring the accessibility concept, which led me to a Local Food Think Tank event in Denver, Colo., last month. The daylong event brought together everyone from farmers to distributors to nonprofit leaders who are working to bring local, healthy and nutritious food to some of the city's poorest, most food-scarce neighborhoods.

In conversations throughout the day, even this group struggled to define a clear, unified way to increase food accessibility (and specifically local food accessibility). The barriers seemed to far outweigh ways to overcome them. But time and time again, the solutions that did come up were to smaller, grassroots efforts that were operating in small pockets of Denver. There was a former restauranteur who is now renting her space to various local food-based businesses and an activist who changed Denver’s zoning laws to allow people to sell food from their gardens. We heard from a man who is running an urban garden in one of Denver’s most polluted neighborhoods and selling farmers market leftovers to low-income residents for Walmart prices.

While these stories were no doubt inspiring, I was struck by the scarce participation from local businesses, food related or not, who were getting involved in this issue in a meaningful, nitty-gritty way.

That doesn’t have to be the case.

As as local food advocate and Denver zoning change-leader Dana Miller said, “The work we’ve been doing always has open doors. You can come at it from an environmental door, a health door, a foodie door, a gourmet door” and the list goes on. Businesses have a chance participate in the groundwork of local food accessibility through any one of these avenues. Those that do so have a chance to open up new market channels and find inspiration for new product development, Gallagher said. Plus, the ones that prove they’re willing to get their hands dirty and their feet wet in this conversation will earn the respect of the local food movement, and by extension, many of the hard-to-reach populations it's working to help.

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