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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Twelve percent of Americans don’t have enough access to fresh food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The health impacts of eating processed junk food are too long to list.

Food deserts are a problem across the country in big cities and small towns, however, there are some solutions to food insecurity that are making a difference.

The problems

A food desert is a neighborhood where residents don’t have access to fresh and nutritious fruits, vegetables and meats.

Instead of grocery stores and farmer’s markets, people here have corner marts, dollar stores and gas stations which sell mainly low-priced and low-quality processed foods.

To make matters worse, many people don’t have cars to get to grocery stores.

It’s a problem coast to coast. According to USDA data, Houston has 100 areas considered to be food deserts. San Antonio has 70. Detroit has 45. Jacksonville and Orlando have 40 each.

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“You won’t see grocery stores but what you will see are liquor stores, no shortage of those,” said Mika Hardison-Carr, a Jacksonville resident who’s taking on food deserts. “There’s no shortage of convenience stores. No shortage of Dollar Generals, Family Dollars — none of which support or sell fresh produce.”

A food desert is an area where it’s difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Forty million Americans live in this atmosphere.

“People who are affluent have many choices and people who are not, not so much,” Hardison-Carr said. “And so, when you have a great income and a lot of automobiles, you can simply just get in your car and drive to Whole Foods and drive to Fresh Market or drive to Sprouts, but you don’t have those options here. Many people don’t.”

The problems with lack of access to fresh, healthy food go on and on.

“So people who don’t have access to fresh food survive off of processed food,” she said. “Survive on sugar, survive on a lot of carbs, and that translates, that’s long-reaching, so it has consequences beyond that dinner table. It impacts children’s ability to learn, children’s ability to grow and thrive.”

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The solutions

Hardison-Carr hopes to be part of the solution, even if her part is small.

“I am the owner of the Urban Bee and I am also the beekeeper here at White Harvest Farms,” she said, while giving a tour of the farmland which is situated in the underserved Northwest Jacksonville neighborhood called Moncrief. “Oh, and I run the community garden.”

Bees, she says, are critical for farms for cross-pollination. She uses their honey for infused treats which she sells around town.

Farm manager Mallory Schott said White Harvest Farms is a slice of good in the fight against a bad problem.

“We are here to eradicate food desert,” she said. “We’re here to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, teach people about growing their own, how to keep bees, how to grow vegetables, and how to live a healthier, more fulfilling life.”

The Clara White Mission, a Jacksonville nonprofit, runs the 10.5-acre farm on what was prominent philanthropist Eartha White’s property. Her relatives were freed slaves.

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“This is all — this is full of vegetables and, you know, fresh flowers and fruits that have an impact directly on people’s lives,” Schott said. “People eat this food, and, you know, it helps them.”

People can use food stamps or cash to buy produce from the farm. They can also earn it by helping on the farm.

From June 2021 to June 2022:

  • The team has grown 4,677 pounds of food.

  • 196 people have attended free farming and cooking classes.

  • 574 people have used the farmer’s market, which is held on Saturdays in front of the property.

“First, I wanted to grow my own food,” said Nicole, a woman who’s been active in the community garden. “To be able to provide myself with healthy alternatives that are not necessarily available in the stores that are in my neighborhood.”

She said it changed her life.

“Oh, tremendously,” she said, while harvesting tomatoes. “It’s been so good to be able to have access to my own healthy foods. I’ve lost weight, I feel better and also just good — it’s a good stress reliever.”

Other nonprofits have a similar mission. A few miles away, volunteers keep a farm attached to the Bridge The Gap charity.

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The plot is right on the edge of a community park, government housing, and a Boys and Girls Club. It is centrally located where people need it the most.

It offers everything from fresh fruits and veggies to eggs.

Jim Clower, MD, a semi-retired emergency medicine physician, helped start the farming program and puts in sweat equity.

“Well, we have a T-shirt and the back of it says, ‘Your health is your wealth,’” he said. “Eating right is part of being healthy, exercise is part of being healthy, getting outside and the garden is exercise, and we hope to expand this and start allowing some of the community to come in and start growing their own food too.”

They give out the food they harvest at the nonprofit’s food bank and other community events. The reception has been positive with recipients.

Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4JAX – All rights reserved.

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