Subscribe for 33¢ / day
WIC produce stand

Maritza Carballo, left, purchases produce from Tina Chancellor at a stand operating this summer outside the East Washington Avenue office of the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. The stand is part of  public health efforts to provide access to nutritious food in "food deserts."

PAT SCHNEIDER/The Capital Times

It was just the purchase of a few potatoes across a display table, a common transaction in Dane County, so rich in farmers markets.

But this transaction at a just-begun farmers market on Madison's east side also is a step toward greater health equity, by bringing fresh healthy produce to a "food desert," public health officials say.

"Food desert" is a term I've been hearing a lot in the past couple of years, as renewed interest in healthy eating and sustainable agriculture has become something of a political movement.

The term came up again this past week, when Public Health Madison and Dane County, the joint city-county health department, issued a press release to attract attention to a produce stand operating this summer outside the office of its Woman, Infants, and Children nutrition program in the Madison East Shopping Center on East Washington Avenue.

You might recall reading about the Madison East Shopping Center in recent months.That's the strip mall in the 2700 block of East Washington where McDonald's is planning to move a restaurant from a few blocks further east, despite opposition from neighbors. That stretch of East Washington is already stuffed with fast food outlets, and that's one reason some neighbors don't want the McDonald's, along with anticipated traffic and congestion.

Some activists in the area, where the Worthington Park neighborhood meets Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara, have proclaimed the area around the plaza a "food desert" and are advocating for a grocery store to be part of the redevelopment of Union Corners, a city-owned parcel nearby at East Washington Avenue and Winnebago Street.

In general terms, a "food desert" is an area with lots of low-income residents where food is primarily available at fast food outlets or gas station convenience stores and fresh, healthy food is hard to come by.

The produce stand outside the WIC office, a collaborative effort between the health department, the adjacent library and the nonprofit Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, offers WIC clients an opportunity  to conveniently redeem special "checks" for local, fresh produce. By providing a handy way to buy produce, the WIC produce stand assists any of the low-income participants of the WIC program who live in "food deserts."

Customers of the stand, run by husband and wife Alan and Tina Chancellor of the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, whom I ran into Wednesday during the weekly market, said the location outside the WIC office certainly was convenient.

Wilkin Carballo says he and his family visit local farmers markets when they can, but work schedules sometimes make that difficult. As for making the right choices for healthy eating? "We're learning," says Carballo, who with wife, Maritza, has a two-year-old.

Quishanta Cary, who bought those potatoes, says she uses the South Madison Farmers Market near her home when she can get there.

Residents of the neighborhood around the Madison East plaza also seem hungry for fresh, handy produce. "The neighborhood people are so excited we're here," says Tina Chancellor, from behind a table spread with a selection of potatoes, beans, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and other produce.

Which brings us back as to what qualifies as a "food desert."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as a low-income community with low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. And says:

"To qualify as a 'low-income community,' a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income;

"To qualify as a 'low-access community,' at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."

The USDA even has a Food Desert Locator, where you can enter an address, or a city, and see areas of unacceptably low access to healthy food displayed in pink on a map.

I count two big supermarkets, Hy-Vee and Woodman's, in the vicinity of the Madison East Shopping Center, which measure 1.7 and 1.6 miles away, respectively, on Google Maps. I haven't done the research about income in the varied neighborhoods in the vicinity of the shopping plaza, but the area doesn't light up on the USDA map.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

The area is "not clearly a food desert," says Judy Howard, a public health supervisor with the health department. Madison neighborhoods that appear more clearly to be food deserts are in the Allied Drive and Badger Road areas, she says.

But those USDA yardsticks of specific income and distance are not the only things the health department looks at in working with communities on access to needed resources like grocery stores, Howard says. "It's not one data point, it's bigger."

"Poverty is a major factor. If you look at low-income communities, you almost always see less access -- to fresh food, transportation to get fresh food, places to play, education, jobs," she says.

Improving access for low-income communities is one way to work toward "health equity," or giving everyone a chance to healthy, Howard says. "That's really our goal."

Public health workers look at FoodShare and WIC participation, for example, to identify neighborhoods where residents might want to work with them to increase access to resources.

"We engage the community, and ask 'what do you think?' Some things we think are issues, residents don't. If they do, we ask how they want to address it."

The deserts don't bloom overnight.

Not only do those community conversations take a commitment of time and effort, bringing political will to the issue can be a long process, not to mention attracting a commercial grocery store. Ask anyone involved with bringing a grocery to the north side of the city.

Bringing access to resources to low-income neighborhoods takes time, Howard agrees.  "Slow and steady wins the race -- that's the only way to change things for the long term."