In South Dallas, the heart health statistics are grim. More residents die from heart disease and diabetes than elsewhere in the city, and being hospitalized for high blood pressure is much more common.
The Bonton neighborhood of South Dallas is among the poorest, with an annual per capita income of between $13,000 and $17,000. Its residents are mostly African-American and are among the 19 million Americans who live in a food desert—meaning they live at least 1 mile from a grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables. The nearest grocery store in Bonton is more than 3 miles away.
Five years ago, resident Daron Babcock planted a vegetable and herb garden in a lot next to his house to give the community fresh produce options. In 2014, Babcock and other residents broke ground on a city-owned lot to start Bonton Farms.
The 52-year-old executive director said the farm’s purpose goes beyond making healthy food accessible—it’s also about making it affordable. Bonton residents pay less for the heirloom tomatoes, sweet onions, okra and other produce than customers from other parts of the city.
“Food security is the bigger issue and it’s the thing we should be talking about,” said Babcock, who recently learned the city approved the farm’s final plans to build a brick-and-mortar grocery store and café on a lot next to the farm.
“In communities like Bonton, even if you had a grocery store, the things people can afford are the processed foods. It’s a much more complex issue than just access. It has to be access to affordable nutritious food,” he said.
It is a view backed up by research.
A study published Wednesday in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that income is a much stronger predictor of cardiovascular disease risk than proximity to a grocery store.
Cardiologist Arshed A. Quyyumi, M.D., co-director of the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute at Emory University in Atlanta, led the study and said the findings suggest that “giving people [access to] food is not going to be the answer necessarily. This is a much deeper problem which has much more to do with understanding and education, affordability and so on.”
There has been a push by federal and local governments in recent years to bring grocery stores that carry healthy foods to communities where they are scant. Programs in Louisiana and Minnesota, for example, hope to entice grocers to sell produce in low-income and rural areas.
In Louisiana, a state with high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, the New Orleans-based nonprofit Market Umbrella is working with the state government to bring local fruits and vegetables to rural areas.
Executive director Kathryn Parker said those efforts are a win-win for farmers and Louisiana residents.
“We can do a lot to have more fruit and vegetable production in our state to feed our people,” said Parker.
In addition, grocers may help the economies of areas where local produce is hard to come by because they generate jobs, Parker said.
As studies on food security and health ramped up during the past two decades, researchers found adults in households that can’t regularly buy nutritious foods are more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke, according to a recent report on food insecurity from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those facing food insecurity are also more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Such news has serious long-term health implications for the 16 million American homes considered “food insecure,” meaning they can’t regularly buy nutritious foods.
The USDA’s Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Ph.D., a food security expert who co-authored the report, said “food deserts may be a factor in food insecurity, but they’re not one of the most important factors affecting whether a household is food insecure or not.”
Bonton Farms sales and marketing director Patrick Wright grew up in the South Dallas neighborhood, which along with the surrounding area has a population of roughly 3,100. He has relatives and neighbors, whose families have lived there for generations, with diabetes and high blood pressure.
The 49-year-old father said working at the farm has helped him and other residents improve their eating habits. His meals of baked chicken, squash, tomatoes and other produce from the farm have come a long way from the fried foods, sodas and sugary buns he used to eat.
“We are living beings and we need live food,” said Wright. He said the farm plans to offer cooking classes at the market for residents.
“We got the fresh healthy food, it’s here,” said Wright, who helped clear the land for crops. “But that’s not good enough, just to provide it. We also have to educate people on it.”