Blog Post


Rethinking Food Deserts 

Written for Community Hands Inc. by Matthew Shanklin (Knoxville Parent) and Ashley Wolf (The Current Sauce News)

Fresh produce is awesome. Most anyone who’s eaten a salad of fresh red kale with cranberries and sweet vinaigrette knows that you can’t beat a meal made with fresh, quality ingredients.

Unfortunately, more than 2.3 million families may not have the pleasure of eating a delicious kale salad because they live in food deserts, poverty-stricken areas where families do not live within a mile of a grocery store and do not have access to a vehicle. Parents in these areas often resort to taking their kids to any of the multiple fast food restaurants in town or buying their food from corner stores.

Some may roll their eyes at the comparison between an abundance of cheeseburgers and an actual desert. Just like a desert lacks life-giving water, a food desert lacks life-giving nutrition, and according to The Institute of Medicine, a poor diet is linked to heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and other health issues.

Food deserts aren’t a far-away problem. These wastelands are right here in Knoxville, Tennessee, according to the USDA map for food deserts. An organization called Community Hands Inc. works with communities to fix this problem. Shana Strevel of Community Hands agreed to speak with Knoxville Parent to shed light on the problem and how we can fix it.

According to Shana, there are two mindsets in communities that normalize foods like French fries and snack cakes as viable options for our kids: 1) that fresh produce isn’t convenient, and 2) that fast food is not only more convenient for our lifestyles, but it tastes better.

In order to unravel these mindsets, we need to understand the root of the problem, which is mainly economic. When the median household income in a city falls below $30,000 there isn’t a demand for large-scale businesses. This keeps supermarkets from setting up shop in low-income areas, and keeps the flow of French fries and snack cakes coming in. Even with access to a grocery store, fresh produce still comes at a high cost for low-income families. Grocery stores have an almost 50-75 percent markup on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Nutritional food and fresh produce can make its way into mini marts, but Shauna says it would require small business owners to “use their creative skills to think outside the box” and to provide farm fresh produce at a lower markup.

It seems that poor families are set up to live in a wasteland of junk food, doesn’t it? But even so, it’s not all about economics here. Eating foods high in carbohydrates, sugars and fats releases endorphins that make you feel good temporarily. A bag of chips is a temporary and fast solution to hunger that can cause long-term health problems over time. Food deserts trap people into a cycle of quick fixes, but these quick fixes will build up into permanent problems if we can’t reverse the cycle.

So the question is this: how can we provide parents with the resources to affordably feed their children nutritious meals?

Shana believes that, for low-income families, “It becomes a balance of time, money, knowledge, and how to combine all those for a healthy food choice.”

The first step toward educating low-income parents is to show them that they can afford to eat healthful, and that investing in healthful food is worth it in the long run. Additionally, once parents learn that switching out McDonald’s for some fresh vegetables is just as affordable and more nutritious. Community Hands teaches parents how to cook healthful and delicious foods that are relevant to their cultures.

“Food is culture. It’s how we as a society come together in good times and bad around the dinner table. When a family is grieving, we bring them a dish. If you look at birthday parties, barbecues, things like that,” Shana said. “A person’s culture can dictate the food that they like, their eating style, and that can have consequences nutritionally.”

Food deserts aren’t a far-away problem. These wastelands are right here in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In the South, we have a largely agrarian society, and our food reflects that. In the past, those who labored in the fields all day needed a high fat diet to keep up with the calories they were burning. Fried chicken, fried okra, country ham and other Southern staples comprises our regional diet. These same foods are now killing people. Switching to smaller portion sizes and preparing these foods in healthier ways like grilling and sautéing with nutritious oils will keep the culture in our meals, and will cut the health risks caused by eating food containing high sodium and high fat.

Community Hands also helps provide access to fresh produce by teaching low-income families the benefits of community gardening and selling and delivering fresh produce to families and businesses throughout the Knoxville area. Here in Knoxville, there are community gardens at Hardy Park and in the Park Ridge community, as well as many others. Community Hands hosts week long summer workshops called The Science of Food at Pelissippi State College and the Muse of Knoxville that educate children on food and gardening.  Also, if you like their Facebook page at, you can read interesting articles about gardening and food preparation, find out how to sign up for classes, or contact them to volunteer in local community gardens.

The benefits of community gardening are not just that they provide fresh produce for healthy eating, but gardens can save money and provide supplemental income, making them an economically viable option for low-income families. In an age when kids don’t know where all of their food comes from, they can develop a deeper appreciation for food and nutrition. Community gardens help families build stronger bonds as they work together to build healthier lives. Community Hands Inc. is working to build these bonds and establish a culture that doesn’t have to live in the quick fix cycle of food deserts.

“You think that…this is a third world problem,” Shana said. “It’s not. It’s right here in America, and it’s right here in Knoxville , Tennessee.”

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