A Tale of Two Food Deserts

Growing healthy communities when fresh food isn't around the corner.

By Katie Walker

Photography by Bob Stefko & Kalen Severe


One county borders the Chihuahuan Desert, while the other county houses the gleaming towers of Chicago. One is 48 percent Latino; the other, 25 percent African American. One has 30,000 residents; the other, 5.2 million. Grant County, New Mexico, and Cook County, Illinois, appear to have little in common. But in both counties, one out of every four children lives below the poverty line. And in both counties, there are food deserts.

A food desert is an area without any major supermarkets, where the residents don't have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Low household income, lack of available transportation, and climate are all factors that can create a food desert. Those issues caused the food deserts in both Grant County and Cook County, and spurred two very different groups to create new solutions for the same problem.

Recognizing the Problem
Until an article about his neighborhood, Englewood, showed up in the Chicago Tribune in 2006, Steve Casey, a grants and budgets manager at the MacArthur Foundation, didn't even know he was living in a food desert. Jeff Pinzino, a community organizer, read the same article and thought it crazy that the communities on the West Side of Chicago were living without grocery stores. In the summer of 2007, a mutual friend introduced the two men, and Casey and Pinzino began brainstorming ways to fix the situation.

Sheelah Muhammad didn't need an article to tell her about the situation on the West Side. She was raised by a grocer who brought health foods to his customers on the South Side of the city for nearly 40 years. She knew that there had been a massive disinvestment by grocery stores in this part of Chicago. A friend conducted a study in which he asked local children what color a banana was; based on what they saw at the local bodegas, the majority of children answered "brown." When Muhammad met Casey and Pinzino, she already knew about the problem and was ready to help find a solution.

Preparing beds at TVCMeanwhile, 1,550 miles across the country, Alicia Edwards was always tuned in to the needs of her community. As the director of The Volunteer Center of Grant County (TVC), a nonprofit organization, she dispatched volunteers all over the county. TVC helped groups of all causes and sizes, but Edwards felt that there was a bigger goal toward which they should be working. She realized that the common denominator of the people she served was poverty and a lack of access to food.

Edwards lives not only in a food desert but in the actual desert, as well. Grant County, New Mexico, is large—3,968 square miles—and situated between high desert and arid mountain landscapes. Rain in Grant County is sporadic, to say the least. It is 150 miles from the nearest semi-metropolitan area, and copper mining and ranching define the lives of the residents. The beautiful landscape attracts artists, writers, thinkers, and doers, and, as Edwards says, "the intellectual and creative possibilities here are endless." It was the perfect place to test a new model of community gardening, even though the question on everyone's mind was, how do you grow anything in Grant County?