August 13, 2020

OPINION: St. Louis-area food deserts clearly demonstrate systemic racism

So often we take for granted where our food comes from. If you live in South St. Louis County like I do, I’m betting it’s not hard for you to get your hands on fresh, healthy foods.

The same can’t be said for over 769,000 residents in the St. Louis Metro Area.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 71 census tracts, clumps of about 4,000 people, in St. Louis qualify as food deserts, meaning at least 33% of the population has to travel at least a mile to the nearest grocery store.

All the statistics I mentioned in the last few paragraphs came from the 2015 census, the latest data the USDA has. So many local publications have covered this in the last five years the term “food desert” is practically common language in this city. So, why am I bringing this up now? Because I think looking at which St. Louisans have the most access to healthy foods is key to understanding environmental racism.

I am a white, middle-class 22-year-old in suburban St. Louis. I bought the ingredients for my last meal at a Crestwood Schnucks less than a half mile away from my home.

In one Spanish Lake census tract labeled by the USDA as a food desert, 25.8% of households without vehicles were more than half a mile away from the nearest grocery store. I randomly selected a house within this tract using Excel. Whoever lives in that house would have to travel 1.7 miles to get to the nearest grocery store.

The closest store, Spanish Lake Market, sells fresh produce and hot food, but is relatively small in size compared to the Schnucks and Dierbergs that seem to riddle every corner in South or West County. There are, however, three separate fast food restaurants including a McDonalds and Taco Bell within a mile from the house.

I’ve never been to Spanish Lake. If you haven’t either, you might’ve passed it by on the way to those Instagramable sunflower fields off I-270. The only knowledge I had of the area before researching it for this piece was the unfounded intuition to avoid it. Just east of Spanish Lake is the Chain of Rocks Bridge, a historic pedestrian bridge I like to visit with friends now and then. If my parents hear of my planned excursions to the bridge, each time they reiterate the same caution.

“Don’t stop in Spanish Lake.”

It’s a warning I never questioned. It’s as if we’re birds with magnets in our beaks, and each county line borders different magnetic fields—invisible forces telling us instinctively, blindly, where to go and where not to. Perhaps we fear that which is different from us. Perhaps we fear the unknown. Perhaps we can’t look beyond the glaring statistics: crime, race, poverty.

I can only speculate why grocery chains would choose not to invest in food deserts like Spanish Lake. After all, everybody eats. Maybe they look at neighborhoods’ average income, property values, or crime rates. I hope, and maybe pray, since a higher power seems more logical to trust in than our divided government, that the avoidance is not due to the following numbers.

Of the 4,164 people who live in the census tract of the random house in Spanish Lake, 305 of those people are white. 3,695 of the population are Black. About 31 miles away in my Crestwood census tract, 4,521 people of the total 4,843 are white. Twenty-five are Black.

There are nine grocery stores within a 3-mile radius from my house. There are two grocery stores within the same boundary from the house in Spanish Lake.

According to the USDA, St. Louis is the 24th worst city in the country in terms of access to healthy food options. A little more than 6.1% of the city’s population lives in a low-income census tracts at least a mile away from a grocery store. The national average is 6.5%.

The disparity is even larger for St. Louis’ Black population. In the St. Louis Metro Area, 13.9% of Black residents live in a low-income census tract and at least a mile from a grocery store. Only 4.2% of white residents face the same demographics.

It would be easy to lose hope. But even in a desert, it rains.

There are so many local initiatives working to eradicate food deserts in St. Louis. In 2013, two college students created St. Louis Metro Market, a “grocery store on wheels” that travels to low-income neighborhoods and sells fresh produce at low prices. The Community Action Agency of St. Louis County funds an initiative called Seeds of Hope Farm in North St. Louis to increase food security in food deserts and teach about cooking and gardening.

And there’s something you could do, too. Below is a map of food banks in the St. Louis area. Donate food, write a check, or, if you need to, get some fresh food.

View St. Louis-Area Food Banks in a full screen map

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