In 346 communities in South Florida, healthy food is more than one mile away. The cost to get to a grocery store and back eats into the money to to buy food. And there are grocery bags to carry to the bus, onto the bus and then into the home.
Those communities are called food deserts and two organizations - one local, one national - have partnered to help people who live in them.
Health in the Hood Lyft identifies people who need discounted transportation to nearby grocery stores and ride-sharing company Lyft does so through its Grocery Access Program.
Lyft is giving free or discounted rides to people living in healthy-food barren areas to a grocery store partner. Lyft will give rides to 130 families who live in food deserts to Bravo supermarkets for a flat fee of $2.50, whether round trip or one way.
Health in the Hood shares with Lyft information about families who need a subsidized ride at $2.50, or who need a free ride. Thirty families responded to a survey from Health in the Hood saying they cannot afford $20 per month for transportation to a grocery. They will receive free rides fully funded by Lyft.
Areas of the country offering little to nothing in terms of fresh fruit, vegetables or other healthy whole foods are defined as food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food deserts are typically in poorer areas. In rural areas, grocery stores are at least 10 miles away; in urban communities, the distance to food shopping is at least 1 mile away. The cost of transportation exacerbates the burden of the distance to healthy food options for people in low-income areas. The closer options are usually convenience stores or fast food.
The Grocery Access Program is a six-month pilot program from Lyft and Miami is one of seven cities where it is located.
Yun Ling, marketing manager for Lyft Florida, said the company will evaluate after six months but did not provide specifics on what are the metrics of success for the program.
“When the people don’t have to settle for unhealthy food,” Ling said. Ling said the Grocery Access Program is not a profit generator for Lyft.
“At that steep of a discount we’re not receiving a profit,” he said. “The driver receives the full fare and the family only pays $2.50.” Lyft typically takes 20 percent of the fare and the booking fee, according to ridester.com.
Ling lived the food desert experience.
“Growing up in the ‘90s in Sweetwater/Hialeah, I walked two hours to and from the store carrying grocery bags with my mom,” Ling said.
The USDA has a Food Environment Atlas, a map detailing the food environment in the country, residents’ food choices and access to healthy options. According to the atlas, there were 1,430 fast-food restaurants in Miami-Dade County in 2009 and 1,640 in 2014, about a 15 percent increase. Convenience stores increased by 17 percent. Grocery stores increased by 15 percent and supercenters and club centers increased by 35 percent. Specialized food stores increased by nine percent and stores that accept payment from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased by seven percent. However, between 2008 and 2012 stores that accept payment from the Women, Infant and Children nutrition program decreased by seven percent. WIC is a federally funded program that pays for healthy food, counseling and nutrition education and breastfeeding support. WIC also provides referrals for health care and community services. WIC is managed locally by the Florida Department of Health, which has not responded to questions about why the number of WIC-authorized locations reduced and if more have opened since 2012.
The USDA will publish more recent data about the country’s food environment at the end of June 2019, according to Alana Rhone, a Black woman who is an agricultural economist with the USDA.
There are 346 food deserts in South Florida, according to Asha Walker, executive director and founder of Health in the Hood.
“Preventable diseases plague these areas,” Walker said.
Strokes, diabetes, heart disease and obesity are common in areas with unhealthy food options.
Organizations like Health in the Hood also have programs to help alleviate the impact of food deserts. On Northwest 60th Street in Liberty City, across from the Charles Drew Middle School and the Charles R. Drew K-8 Center, and behind a County-owned apartment complex rests Health in the Hood’s first community garden. After winning an $8,500-grant from The Miami Foundation through its public space improvement challenge, Health in the Hood started growing vegetables in the garden in 2013. Health in the Hood has eight similar gardens throughout South Florida and the ninth will be in Little Haiti by the end of June 2019.
“We have had too much but never not enough,” Walker said of the amount of food the garden produces. “Pests are the biggest issue.”
Health in the Hood hired Nicole Fowles to be in charge of food distribution.“Whoever needs they just come and ask and I pick for them,” said Fowles, 48. “But people can pick too if I’m not here.”
The garden grows collard greens, spinach, kale, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, green peppers, pineapples and arugula. The produce is given for free.
“This saves them a trip to the store,” Fowles said. “It’s amazing we can just walk out of our door and have things we can pick and eat.”