Extension helping to put an end to urban food deserts

photo of community garden

Community gardens such as this one are helping Richmond City residents combat the challenges posed by food deserts.

The young woman named Special from Richmond City had no idea she was in an urban food desert when she walked in to a Virginia Cooperative Extension symposium set up to tackle the problem.

Special’s father had recently died from a heart attack and she was looking for ways that her family could start eating healthy, so she attended the event at Fifth Street Baptist Church that featured a number of tips on eating well. Special not only learned that she was one of the thousands of Richmond residents living in a food desert, she also learned how she can work with VCE to combat the issue.

“Today’s event has really inspired me to get involved to work with VCE and others to address this concern,” she told her local Extension agent.

There are more than 25 food deserts in Richmond, where people do not have easy access to fresh and nutritious food within 1.5 miles of their homes. Though grocery stores or farmers markets may be accessible by car, many people do not have a means to get to one, so they are dependent upon their corner store, which often carries fast or junk food.

As many as 120,000 residents in Richmond are at risk of being food-insecure, which can have negative impacts including health concerns, juvenile obesity, financial well-being, and environmental issues.

So Virginia Cooperative Extension has jumped in to help.

The event that also featured Virginia first Lady Dorothy McAuliffe was just one way that Extension is addressing the issue of rural food deserts head-on. Master Gardeners are helping local churches figure out how to get the most out of the community gardens and holding educational seminars at local libraries. Agents are working with children to show them the many careers available in agriculture. Another program is being developed to create a mobile famers market that travel to food deserts weekly.

Twandra Lomax-Brown, the family and consumer sciences agent and Richmond City unit coordinator, said the work VCE is doing is already having an impact.

“This is creating an awareness of the problem,” she said. “Now we are working to give people the tools they need to help make themselves healthier. It’s not just good for them – it’s good for the entire community.”

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