Uneven Ground Part II: Navigating food deserts and swamps

Tim Purdy, a volunteer with Samaritan House, grabs some rice and beans from the North Fair Oaks facility's "food pharmacy," which provides foods tailored to help diabetic patients control their blood sugar levels. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.)

When Kendy Mendoza of East Palo Alto and his wife experienced health scares over the last few years, they took action to turn their lives around. Eight years ago, when his wife was diagnosed with diabetes, she cut out bread and tortillas from her diet, he said.

Two years ago, after a heart-related health scare, he added, he changed his diet and exercise habits, and now hikes and eats 70% more fruits and vegetables.

"My life is changing," he said.

He explained all of this during an interview with The Almanac while he cooked fried chicken in front of St. Francis Church in East Palo Alto to feed the post-service crowd one Sunday because, he acknowledged, it still sells better than vegetables.

As The Almanac discussed in part one of this series, a number of local health clinics are increasingly focused on trying to address the "social determinants" of health, seeking to help people to proactively develop healthy habits that reduce their need for acute medical services.

One of those key determinants of health is diet and access to healthy food, an area in which there are significant differences in access based on neighborhood.

The discrepancy isn't hard to see: In Palo Alto, Redwood City and Menlo Park, there are four Safeways, two Trader Joes, two Whole Foods, two Grocery Outlets and a number of other specialty and local grocery stores. But head across U.S. 101 and the grocery stores become few and far between, making it harder for residents to access healthy food and impacting the health of that area's residents.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Belle Haven and East Palo Alto — as well as some areas on the Stanford campus — are considered to be "food deserts": areas where low-income people have limited access to healthy foods. A food desert is defined as an area, in an urban setting, where a significant number or portion of residents are more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket.

Among the 101 people who live in Menlo Park, North Fair Oaks, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto that The Almanac interviewed about their health concerns in the community, key concerns that emerged, following the predominant concern about the cost of housing, were the cost of health care, access to healthy food, and diabetes. Twenty-one people rated the cost of health care, 10 rated diabetes, and 11 rated access to healthy food among their top three health concerns.

Diabetes and heart disease, both of which can be the consequence of a poor diet, are the leading causes of death and severe illness in San Mateo County, according to the county health department.

So what are people doing to address these challenges, and what are growing challenges to ensuring fair food options in these communities?

Read the full story here.

Kate Bradshaw reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship, with engagement support from the center’s interim engagement editor, Danielle Fox.


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