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Fresh Food and Food Deserts in The Lehigh Valley

A large portion of the urban population of the Lehigh Valley lives in food deserts, meaning they have low accessibility to healthy food, restricted by distance or cost or some combination of the two. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their homes nationwide, and recent data shows that large portions of downtown Allentown and Bethlehem fit this criteria.

The USDA is generally able to document food deserts on a community scale by looking at two factors in different census tracts: income and access. Low access areas are generally defined by substantial distance from supermarkets. Low income areas are defined by a census tract that has a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater or median income less than or equal to 80 percent of either the state or a metropolitan area’s median family income, according to the Department of Treasury’s New Markets Tax Credit Program.

This map shows some of the low income AND low access areas of the Lehigh Valley, with data provided by the USDA. The red cross-hatching above shows census tracts that, as of 2010, were defined as low income and low access due to being 1 mile away from the nearest supermarket in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas. The green shading shows census tracts that, as of 2015, fulfilled the same requirements.

Those three shaded areas in Allentown alone account for more than 22,500 people, according to recent Census estimates. This is also only data measurable on a large scale, by Census tract, and leaves out individuals suffering from low access to food or low income, rather than a confluence.

This diagram shows the census tracts of the Lehigh Valley measured first according to median household income, then a purple overlay of all tracts also marked as low access, regardless of income, to show just how poor the access to fresh and healthy food is. The red line indicates the city boundaries of Allentown.

Lack of access to healthy food is a real problem in the Lehigh Valley, especially for low-income populations. “Food insecurity is a chronic problem, and it’s an acute problem,”  says Dr. Alison Harmon, a professor at Montana State University who researches food insecurity and sustainable food systems. “When you’re getting families or individuals that aren’t getting enough to eat, they’re suffering acutely from that. That acute suffering is going to impact their behavior and their ability to learn.” She continues, “The chronic problem is that, over time, your whole mental health and behavior around food changes. People who are chronically food insecure overeat whenever they have the ability to do that, and they’re usually eating lower quality food. So you can easily see food insecurity and obesity in the same family, due to a lower quality and high quantity of food.” 

Even for those with access to supermarkets, University of California studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C within a week, so time spent transporting food from farms to supermarkets can render the food nutritionally null by the time it reaches your table. Locally grown food, whether from a farmers’ market or grown yourself, would seem to be the solution, but these things have the burden of both time and money that can be even less accessible to those who struggle to even make it to a supermarket.

“When we think about sustainable food, sustainably produced food, we often think about ‘that’s expensive’ and that’s not necessarily helping address hunger issues,” says Dr. Harmon. “Any time you can connect entitlement programs [like food stamps] with local and sustainable producers, you’ve overcome that obstacle.”

There are local initiatives working to make fresh, healthy food more accessible to all. One major initiative is the Easton Urban Farm at the Easton Area Neighborhood Center. What had been a community garden since the 1970s, was formalized and fenced in in 1989, and revamped in 2010 is now a ⅝ acre farm on Easton park property that provides for low income populations of the Lehigh Valley. The plot of land sits just on the southern border of the city of Easton, fenced in next to a playground and the Easton Area Neighborhood Center itself. It is now overseen by master gardener Mark Reid, who supervises the volunteer staffed farming operations, and tries to manage the land to produce the best yield for the community.

The produce from the Easton Urban Farm goes to a few places. In 2012, the community endeavor worked with the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership to provide produce to the West Ward of Easton, the city’s most impoverished area. But in 2015, the Neighborhood Partnership came on hard times and turned over control of the farm to the Easton Area Neighborhood Center (EANC). 

“This year [2019], and we aren’t quite done, we’ve already harvested in excess of 6,500 pounds of produce,” says Ross Marcus, Executive Director of the EANC. Half of the produce goes to the EANC Food Bank to supplement the shelf stable goods that feed struggling residents of Easton, and the other half goes to the West Ward. Nearly 9,000 pounds of produce were distributed in the West Ward this year, about 3,000 from the Easton Urban Farm, and the rest through Vegetables in the Community, a Lafayette College program and their own community garden, La Farm, as well as an employee-managed garden at Crayola.

Here is a photo of the Napa cabbage at the Easton Urban Farm, still growing as late as early December.

“The pantry serves people from all over Easton,” says Marcus, “but predominantly the South Side [due to location]… predominantly low-income. It’s a very diverse constituency for both programs, both our food pantry and the Vegetables in the Community program. It is very common to see people of all races, all backgrounds, and they come and they share their own culture. One of the interesting things, I think, is that we put the vegetables out and it looks like a farmers market.”

A picture of the fresh food offerings at EANC’s food bank on December 6, 2019.

On Friday, December 6, 2019, things were a little colder and sadder than Marcus had described. There was one small table with some root vegetables and onions, and some very pale lettuce donated from a local farm, in addition to large donation boxes of almost expired chips and condiments courtesy of the local YMCA. Just before the doors opened at 9am for the weekly rush of pantry attendees, master gardener Mark Reid added a few heads of fresh Napa cabbage to the offerings. 

When the pantry officially opened, more than 15 people had already lined up, bundled up from the cold of walking to the pantry (as most of attendees do) in the 39 degree chill. As they each signed in and took an index card marked with a number in Sharpie to receive entry to the pantry proper, they milled about the tables of donated food, filling bags with snacks and more. Only a few people seemed to really partake in the somewhat sad produce offering, but the Napa cabbage was gone within minutes, so one can only imagine how people benefit in the fresh produce of the summers. 

The pantry itself was more machine like, calling in two people at a time, to a working room with doors to two storage closets full of canned goods. Their number cards were taken, then they were asked how many in their family and offered them each item in English or Spanish with rhythmic precision. “What kind of meat? Green beans? *thunk* Corn? *thunk* What kind of juice?” before passing them on and shouting out the next number. From the 9 A.M. opening, there was no break until 28 families had been served, at 9:49, when the staff and volunteers started to restock the shelves of the working room and break down boxes.

Reid, arms full of freshly picked cabbage, backgrounded by the almost empty farm.

Other organizations are also working towards making fresh and sustainable food available in the Lehigh Valley. One such group is the Bethlehem Co-op, which is a member-owned food operation. Since they incorporated in 2013, the Co-op has been working to build membership for what will eventually be a community-owned market filled with locally sourced food. They too are working to include low- and moderate-income members of the Lehigh Valley in their efforts. One way they do this is by offering memberships to the co-op in exchange for educational conversations with families suffering from food insecurity, met at the community hub at William Penn Elementary. If families sit down for a short interview about how lack of healthy food has affected them, they will be granted member-ownership of the Co-op instead of having to pay the $300 buy in. The Co-op also offers gradual buy-ins to the Co-op for the cost of $25 a month until full equity is paid, which is more accessible than paying $300 for membership to a store that does not yet exist. According to Kelly Allen, Board Chair of the Bethelehem Co-op, most co-ops become actual stores within six to nine years of incorporation, so the Bethlehem Co-op is aiming to have a physical location secured within the next two years, but as of yet does not provide any fresh food for the area. 

Researching this piece, I noted that there has also been an uptick in sustainably branded dining options in the Lehigh Valley, like Switchback Pizza and Greenhouse & Enoteca. When I asked Allen about how these high end options might conflict with the Bethlehem Co-op he said, “When people say ‘Food is too expensive,’ pardon my French, but I have to call bullshit on that. We are paying for farmers’ labor, and these small farms are not rolling in cash. We often put the blame on farmers and food packagers, but the problem is that people aren’t making enough money. The cost of living is out of control, but wages aren’t keeping up.”

Dr. Harmon put it a little more technically, saying, “I think that [high end sustainable options] are necessary. There’s a diversity of customers, and I think that you want local and sustainable food to be able to reach customers of the whole income spectrum. It may be that the ability to market that food at high end restaurants is actually going to keep local growers in business… If you can have a business model that’s more diverse, you’re going to need customers that can afford to pay top dollar, then you can make room for customers who can’t… I know a lot of producers who want to do that, and they’re willing to do that, but they will depend upon the high end customer to help make it happen.”

Making healthy and sustainable food options available are central to helping the health of populations in food deserts like parts of the Lehigh Valley. The ways in which we do this can vary, from more community gardens, more entitlement programs connecting with local farms, even the proliferation of more sustainable restaurants. How gentrification might play into this issue is also an interesting path of future exploration, because the changing economic makeup of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley at large surely has an effect. The Lehigh Valley needs to receive more nutrition and more security than it does currently and will if we can find ways to make fresh food more accessible.

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