Can Urban Gardening Alleviate Waco 'Food Deserts?'

Jul 28, 2014

It’s hard to find healthy food in some Waco neighborhoods. These so-called “food deserts” often occur when grocery stores are too far away and residents are left to get nourishment from convenience stores or fast food. Urban gardening is just one way the city is combating these food deserts.

Kids attending Farm Camp at the World Hunger Relief headquarters outside of Waco are learning how to live sustainably. The kids are recruited from Waco ISD and they’re playing a game based on recycling, composting and other ways to get rid of trash. Campers run across a field, sorting trash between recycling, garbage and compost.

Throughout the week campers are learning about sustainable living. And activities are based mostly around agriculture.

The camp is Elizabeth Ross’s idea. She’s also a part of the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition. Ross says along with Farm Camp she’s also working to create a strong community garden movement in Waco neighborhoods struggling with accessing healthy food.

“The reason why it started was to address the issue of food deserts in the community,"
 Ross said. "There are so many areas, especially with a couple of grocery stores that have closed, leaving places without healthy food access.”

Matt Hess is the Executive Director of World Hunger Relief. He says food deserts are prominent in many Waco neighborhoods, especially in low-income communities across the city’s limits.

“In the neighborhood, the 76704, there’s almost a 50 percent poverty rate," Hess said. "And the number of families that don’t have a car is much higher than others in town. And so it is a difficulty for them to get to the grocery store.”

"The closest grocery store for us is in Bellmead," says Dalton Gooden, the Neighborhood Association President for the Carver Neighborhood in East Waco. "A lot of our community members are elderly. Many have to find transportation to get to the store and pay for that."

Gooden says he knows of one community garden in the Carver area at St. Luke’s Church. He says he’s grateful for any service addressing the food issue in his neighborhood.

But he thinks bringing in an economy to the area is what will really help.

“So we don’t have grocery stores, post offices, Dr.’s offices, etc," says Gooden. "We don’t have a mall over here. We don’t have things of that nature. No businesses where people can go to work within the community and walk back home and things like that.”

At JH Hines Elementary in East Waco, Elizabeth Ross is showing me some of the produce the students and teachers have been growing at a community garden there throughout the year. This is a part of an after school gardening program held at several schools within Waco. 

"We would love to be in every school," Ross says. "But unfortunately that's not possible if the funds aren't there."

And over at the Mae Jackson Development Center -- City of Waco Senior Planner Felix Landry says the city’s food deserts have been a major concern for many who work for the City.

Landry says they’ve been changing planning policies to make processes like setting up community gardens easier – but he hasn’t seen many last.

"There’s hope on the City," Landry says. "And we’re open to doing whatever we can. And there seems to be some effort… it just doesn’t seem like it’s sticking.”

Overall Landry says strongly focusing on revitalizing areas like East Waco and Carver through economic development would also alleviate food deserts -- because it’ll attract more grocery stores to the area. 

He says he hopes to hear more input about food deserts in the City as well as community garden initiatives during the City’s comprehensive development plan public input forum in the Fall.