When many of us are hungry, we reach into the refrigerator and grab a snack. Or we hop in the car for a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up fresh produce, lean meats and assorted healthy food items. But 49 million Americans, many of them children, live in food insecure households, with dicey access to nutritious food. And roughly 23 million live in low-income neighborhoods far away from grocery stores.
The numbers are more dire for black families, which are twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families.
“As a country, we have been very divided in terms of geography—where people in lower socio-economic areas are deprived, less likely to have opportunities to have fresh food as well as other healthier foods available,” says Garth Graham, M.D., president of the Aetna Foundation.
Lack of access to nutritious food also puts people who live in these underserved communities at increased risk of developing chronic diseases. “We were concerned—as are many other funders across the country—that there are these food deserts,” Dr. Graham says.
It is with these disparities in mind that Local Roots, part of the Aetna Foundation’s GoLocal: Creating Healthy Communities grant program, was created. In addition to making healthy foods more available, the program also encourages communities to come together to create community gardens, farmers markets and urban farms in underserved neighborhoods.
But these are just the first steps. Local Roots will award a total $1 million to selected non-profits, community organizations, and state and local government agencies to help bring nutritious food to vulnerable communities. Applicants must go beyond community gardens and provide at least one of the following opportunities:
- Cooking classes with a focus on the health benefits of fresh produce.
- Growth or distribution of produce reflecting food traditions of the area.
- A learning environment promoting job skills or entrepreneurship within the context of community gardens, urban farms or farmers markets.
- Scheduled community service or volunteer work.
“We’re hoping we will get folks who are interested in nurturing these opportunities in underserved areas, and that we find partners that will help us develop some of these areas so they aren’t always food deserts,” Dr. Graham says. “And we have to be present for the long term, not just a year. It takes some time for these urban oases to grow.”