Galardi: CSAs an oasis in the food desert

November 22, 2013 

Innovation took center stage this past week during Global Entrepreneurship Week, a celebration intended to inspire individuals to collaborate and ideate. Across the Triangle, workshops and presentations fostered networks and gave life to the next big thing.

But innovation shouldn’t be limited to the corporate world. It can be used to engage in breaking the barriers to our biggest societal challenges, from hunger to poverty, if we only have the willingness to take a bite.

Consider Durham’s burgeoning food scene, sourced from the region’s finest farmers, which recently attracted attention from Southern Living magazine. It’s fertile ground for seeds of economic development and prosperity.

For others, it’s dry ground – a desert.

Durham is home to three major census tracts meeting the USDA’s definition of a food desert: a 20 percent or higher poverty rate and a third or more of the population living at least a mile from a grocery store. Across the county, 6 percent of the population lives in a food desert; the first congressional district, which includes Durham, ranked 22nd out of 436 districts across the nation for “most food insecure” in 2012. But even if residents of these areas have food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), available food may be limited to cheap, processed varieties offered by convenience stores.

For residents of food deserts and families facing food insecurity, the cost and availability of healthy, quality food pose a significant barrier to nutritious meals. It’s especially hard to swallow in a state that’s top 10 in the nation for its agriculture. How can we better connect individuals with low incomes to the rich bounty of produce in our state?

Why not wipe out a food desert – by letting the food come to the people?

Doorstep solution

CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are local farm-to-consumer systems sprouting up across the country. The Produce Box, a Durham-based startup, delivers fresh produce to your doorstep, employing community members like stay-at-home moms as neighborhood coordinators.

CSAs are allowed to accept payment through SNAP. But their ability to do so is limited because SNAP prohibits using the SNAP EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card online. Thus, SNAP participants must be present at the time of delivery to purchase through a CSA, eliminating its advantage of convenience. On the supply side, pre-order helps the farmer plan ahead and avoid waste.

The best innovations make us say, “Why didn’t we think of that before?” It’s a sustainable business solution that opens up markets for local farmers and develops community networks. To set this innovation in motion, the USDA must update the EBT system to accommodate online purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

SNAP has the ability to change the lives of millions of Americans – and thousands of Durham residents – experiencing food insecurity. Why not capitalize on its potential, starting with bringing its technology to the 21st century through use of SNAP benefits online, to make way for further innovation? The time is ripe.

Christina Galardi is a master’s of public health degree candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC.

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