KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — "Food Desert" is a term used to describe areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited. Rural and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by food deserts, and according to United Way, that’s certainly the case in Knox County.
More than 50,000 people in Knox County don't have reliable access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Access is even harder without a car—that could potentially stretch your grocery run into a three-hour errand. The reality is, food deserts are more common than you may think.
71-year-old Jean Winters waits at least twice a week because she is disabled and doesn't have a car. She counts on public transportation to ensure she can get food on the table.
"It would be a real problem if we didn't have this bus," Winters said. "There used to be a little store right down there but it closed down. It's been closed down for years," Winters said.
Winters said a trip to the grocery store can sometimes turn into a two-hour round trip and she can only buy what fits in her walker. The struggle of these long trips turns many people to what’s convenient: their corner store.
She and more than 53,000 people in Knox County don't have reliable access to nutritious food according to Feeding America. That means those people live in one of the several food deserts in the county.
According to United Way Knoxville, the struggle to find fresh groceries often stresses already underserved communities.
"The poverty level in those neighborhoods is kind of indicative to the kind of access they have to healthy sustainable food sources," United Way spokesperson Anna Moseley said.
The USDA reports at least 15 food deserts in Knoxville. Many falling in East Knoxville.
Moseley said in these food deserts it's easier to find Oreos than a fresh salad. The available, accessible food often ends up being highly processed options.
"It's very processed food either in the gas station or dollar general or fast food like McDonald's or Krystal’s," she said.
Food options like those are usually found inside Harbs Market, a local convenient store centrally located in the Lonsdale Community. This is another example of one of Knoxville's food deserts.
Harbs Market shopper, Debrina Penn said she sometimes will stop there instead of a grocery store for time's sake.
"You don't have to walk that far or stand in line in things like that. Sometimes it's a little bit more pricy than it would be in the store but sometimes for convenience, sometimes you'll just go the extra mile to pay it," Penn said.
Lonsdale is a place seeing lots of new development - but no grocery store. The nearest one is two miles away. The closest one is Kroger on North Broadway.
There are community groups and organizations working to address the problem, like Battlefield Farms and Gardens. It's an urban farm and collective of community gardens fighting food insecurity in East Knoxville.
“Part of the reason why there are so many health issues in our community is that we are not eating enough fresh vegetables,” farm operator Chris Battle said.
Battles said it started with a community garden in East Knoxville. That has since bloomed into what's known as Fanny Lou’s veggie van.
“The veggie van is what it is, Fanny Lou is what it do,” Battle said
Named after Fanny Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who opened the freedom farms in Mississippi, the veggie van is dedicated to bringing the veggies to the food desert of East Knoxville.
“It’s a blessing to them because a lot of them are immobile, in wheelchairs or just don’t have the transportation to get to the grocery store. I think it’s been a valuable commodity to the community,” Battle said.
Battles said he doesn't want it to stop in East Knoxville. He plans to extend their delivery route to Western Heights, another food desert, in the future.
Many groups are trying to make fresh food more accessible. United Way Knoxville is also funding a project to teach people how to grow their own fresh foods. Rooted East will begin putting food access into the hands of the community gardens and providing resources to have your own.
To find out how you can help, visit United Way Knoxville online for volunteer and donation opportunities.