OPINION: St. Louis-area food deserts clearly demonstrate systemic racism

So often we take it for granted where our food comes from. If you live in South St. Louis County, like me, your hands on fresh, healthy groceries shouldn’t be difficult.

The same is not true for the 769,000+ residents in the St. Louis Metro Area.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 71 census areas, clumps of about 4,000 people, are considered food deserts in St. Louis, meaning at least 33% of the population must drive at least a mile to the nearest grocery store.

All of the statistics I mentioned in the previous paragraphs are from the 2015 census, the latest data from the USDA. So many local publications have covered this in the past five years. The term “food desert” is practically the common language in this city. So why am I bringing this up now? Because I think looking at which St. Louisans have the most access to healthy foods is key to understanding environmental racism.

I am a white, middle-class 22 year old living in the suburbs of St. Louis. I bought the ingredients for my last meal at a Crestwood Schnucks less than half a mile from my home.

In a census area of ​​Lake Spain designated by the USDA as a food desert, 25.8% of households without vehicles were more than half a mile from the nearest grocery store. I randomly selected a house in this area using Excel. Those who live in this house have to travel 1.7 miles to get to the nearest grocery store.

The closest store, Spanish Lake Market, sells fresh produce and hot items, but is relatively small compared to the Schnucks and Dierbergs that seem to be puzzling around every corner in South or West Counties. However, there are three separate fast food restaurants, including a McDonalds and a Taco Bell, just 1 mile from the house.

I have never been to the Spanish lake before. If you haven’t either, you might have passed it on the way to the Instagram-enabled sunflower fields off I-270. The only knowledge I had about the area before researching it for this piece was unfounded intuition to avoid it. East of Lake Spain is the Chain of Rocks Bridge, a historic pedestrian bridge that I like to visit with friends from time to time. Whenever my parents hear about my planned trips to the bridge, they repeat the same caution every time.

“Don’t stop at Spanish Lake.”

It’s a warning I’ve never questioned. It’s like we’re birds with magnets in our beaks, and each circular line is bordered by different magnetic fields – invisible forces that instinctively and blindly tell us where to go and where not to go. Perhaps we fear what is different from us. Maybe we fear the unknown. Maybe we can’t look beyond the blatant statistics: crime, race, poverty.

I can only speculate why grocery chains are choosing not to invest in food deserts like Spanish Lake. After all, everyone eats. Maybe they are looking at average income, property values, or neighborhood crime rates. I hope and perhaps pray, as a higher power seems more logically to trust than our divided government, that the avoidance is not due to the following numbers.

Of the 4,164 people who live in the random house census area in Spanish Lake, 305 are white. 3,695 of the population are black. About 31 miles away in my Crestwood census tract, 4,521 of the total of 4,843 people are white. Twenty-five are black.

There are nine grocery stores within 3 miles of my house. There are two grocery stores within the same border of the house in Spanish Lake.

According to the USDA, St. Louis is the 24th worst city in the country for access to healthy food. Just over 6.1% of the city’s population live in low-income census areas that are at least a mile from a grocery store. The national average is 6.5%.

Inequality is even greater for the black population of St. Louis. In the St. Louis Metro Area, 13.9% of black residents live in a low-income census area and at least one mile from a grocery store. Only 4.2% of the white population are confronted with the same population size.

It would be easy to lose hope. But it also rains in the desert.

There are so many local initiatives working to eradicate food deserts in St. Louis. In 2013, two college students founded the St. Louis Metro Market, a “grocery on wheels” that drives to low-income neighborhoods selling fresh produce at low prices. The St. Louis County’s Community Action Agency funds an initiative called Seeds of Hope Farm in northern St. Louis to improve food security in food deserts and to educate people about cooking and gardening.

And there is something you could do too. Below is a map of the food banks in the St. Louis area. Donate food, write a check, or get fresh food when needed.

View the food banks in the St. Louis area in full screen

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