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Fighting Food Deserts in East Tennessee

Heather Duncan

In East Knoxville, market day arrives with church bells ringing.


At the East Knoxville Sunday Market, kids play a pumpkin bowling game while urban farmers sell purple peppers, green tomatoes and chow chow. The sun filters through rustling leaves above the little meadow next to Tabernacle Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.


The market, begun this summer, is the first created specifically to increase healthy food options in one of Knox County's many “food deserts.” Here, many residents have unreliable transportation and must stretch a dime to feed their families. The closest grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables are at least two and a half miles away.


Tabernacle's pastor, Chris Battle, says he tried asking for fresh fruit in a “grocery” store in the neighborhood. (There are several labeled delis or groceries that contain neither.)


“The [employee] said, 'Not here. We got tobacco. We got beer,'” he recalls. “It's depressing. The system makes us sick with processed food.”


About 15 Knoxville census tracts, as well as large portions of the Appalachian counties around Knoxville, are considered food deserts. While community groups take small steps to chip away at the problem, the federal program that does the most to combat food insecurity is facing a possible overhaul. Proposed changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still commonly called food stamps, could eliminate food assistance for 5 million to 7 million people, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.


SNAP helps pay for food and baby formula for 1 in 5 rural Tennesseans and 1 in 6 people living in Tennessee towns and cities, according to a report by the non-profit Food Research and Action Center.

But the SNAP program has become a flash point for Congress this fall. The House and Senate failed to pass a new Farm Bill by Sept. 30, when the old one expired, because of disagreement on a few key points – the biggest being the SNAP program, which serves 40 million Americans.


First created to help farmers sell surplus food, food stamps account for about 80 percent of the cost of the Farm Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because SNAP has permanent authorization and receives annual appropriations from Congress, it continued to function under the old rules even after the old law expired.


The House version of the new Farm Bill would make many changes to SNAP: expanding work requirements for older adults and those with children, and jacking up the penalty for failing to work enough hours – even once.


House Democrats balked. The Republican-controlled Senate also refused to go along. A joint committee trying to negotiate a compromise has been unsuccessful. Unless the GOP can reach a deal before year's end, the SNAP overhaul seems unlikely since the House has flipped to Democratic control.


But the proposal was based on an idea that has become foundational to the ascendant branch of the Republican party: the rollback of so-called “entitlement programs” that help poor Americans. And that means the idea may not be gone for good.


“What I believe people like to think is that nobody on food stamps is working, when in reality you can have two full-time working parents and still qualify (for food stamps) for a family of four,” said Jennifer Russomanno, who isworking on a doctorate in public health at the University of Tennessee. Her research focuses on how farmers and local food systems can help increase access to food for the poor.


“It's not that people aren't working, it's that people are working and they're just not making enough to make ends meet,” Russomanno said.


In fact, working families with children might be among the hardest-hit if the changes were approved. Children live in two of every five households receiving food stamps in Tennessee, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.


“Eighty-four percent of SNAP benefits go to families with kids, seniors and the disabled,” said Barbara Kelly, executive director of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee. “Most of the people with children are what we call the working poor.” Better known as CAC, Kelly's agency administers federal, state and local programs that help the poor.


Already, able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49 who have no dependents can receive food stamps for only three months over three years – unless they work or participate in job training for 20 hours every week. The House proposal would extend that work requirement to adults another decade older. And an existing work exemption for parents would be eliminated if their kids are older than 6.


“With the ever-changing dynamic of those federal food programs, we won't know who's going to be eligible,” Russomanno explained. “But we do know people will be hungry.”


That's one of the many reasons that local farming advocates, churches and public health officials are all looking closely at ways to make healthy food more reliably available.

Food insecurity


Tennessee kids are more likely to be hungry than average.The Sycamore Institute, a non-partisan Tennessee health research policy center, reports 24 percent of the state's households with children are “food insecure,” compared to 17.9 percent nationally.


In some counties, it’s even worse. At times almost a third of households with children in Cocke County have lacked reliable access to nutritional food, according to the Food Research and Action Center.


Food deserts and food insecurity have broad impacts on society because they’re linked to chronic disease, public health officials say. The associated health care costs can cause the poor to stay poor, drive up the cost of healthcare for everyone, and prevent people from working and feeling well.


“When it comes to food insecurity we often see higher prevalence of diet-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure,” said Daniel Aisenbrey, a public health educator for the Knox County Health Department. “We really look at food access as a tool for preventative health.”


Some of these health conditions are related to obesity. “People who are food insecure or low-income tend to eat foods that are a lot more processed, energy-dense, and nutrient-void because they're cheaper and will feed more people,” explained Russomanno.


The 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the Centers for Disease Control showed people with an unstable food supply also have more day-to-day health problems like extreme fatigue, chronic pain, and dental issues.


The challenge is often translating research into policy. The Knoxville Food Policy Council, the oldest of its kind in the country, is working on a report about the state of the local food system.  


“This is something that would give us the ability to see the impact of federal policy on a local level,” said Kimberly Pettigrew, secretary of the council who also works for Nourish Knoxville.


The council, created in the course of metropolitan planning in 1982, includes members appointed by the city and county mayors, plus associate members who are involved in the local food system.


Pettigrew said the group is gathering existing data about the number of SNAP recipients, food pantries, community gardens, pounds of food distributed through local food kitchens, acres of farm land in Knox County, and average wages for people who work in the food system. Eventually, she says, the council would like to develop policy recommendations for the city council and county commission based on their findings.

Building an oasis in the desert


  Any reduction in food stamp eligibility is a blow to low-income families in both the inner-city and rural mountain communities. That's because they are likely to live in food deserts where food is sold only from fast food franchises and convenience stores.


In large portions of rural counties like Cocke, Greene and Cumberland, low-income residents live more than 10 miles from a grocery store.


In urban food deserts, where people are less likely to own cars, the closest grocery store is more than a mile away. Often these residents are the same folks who receive food stamps. For example, 733 families in the food desert in the Sharp's Ridge census tract of North Knoxville were relying on food stamps in 2015. In the East Knoxville food desert near downtown, 1,666 families received them.


In the rare instances when nutritious food is for sale in these food deserts, it tends to be pricier. A 2008 market-based survey by Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council found that fruits and vegetables sold in low-income neighborhoods were more expensive and poorer quality than what was available in wealthier neighborhoods.


This situation has galvanized the Knox County Health Department, community groups and churches to work on improving food access in East Knoxville, although progress has been slow.


One effort has been a partnership with the owner of a popular convenience store at Five Points. John Davis and his wife have owned Stop N Go at its current location for more than 20 years; they opened an earlier version ten years earlier, in the Walter P. Taylor Homes public housing complex.


Last year, part of a $60,000 grant paid for UT to conduct a customer survey and assessment of what the store offers, then bought equipment that would allow Stop N Go to offer more fresh and healthy foods. The grant, through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Reinvestment Fund, is part of a program to speed up improvements to neighborhoods that face the largest barriers to good health, Aisenbrey said.


Davis said, “I had heard 'food desert' many times, and had no idea we were in the middle of a food desert. It was so enlightening to my wife and me, because it revealed to us our shortcomings, but also the shortcomings of the other businesses around us.”


Walk into Davis's store, and you'll find a perpetual line of eclectic customers – elderly black men in fedoras or fuzzy hats, Spanish-speaking laborers on a lunch break, white utility and postal workers – buying cigarettes, sodas and wings to the tune of bouncy pop hits. On the back wall, a huge Elvis waves from his Thunderbird to customers stepping in; on the way out, Barack Obama bids you goodbye from big framed posters on both sides of the door.


A few small tables are crammed near the door under large flat-screen TVs so patrons can sit down to eat their fried fish and chicken. Although he isn't publicizing it yet, Davis is offering new menu items like salads and grilled chicken.


Credit Heather Duncan
Customers check out the food on sale at the Five Points Stop-N-Go.

  As a result of the grant and partnership, he bought a large new cold counter (which isn't working yet) so Stop N Go can sell more of the fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and raw chicken, fish and pork chops that it has on hand anyway for the deli. The grant paid for baskets to hold fresh fruits and vegetables, a scale for weighing meat, and a new freezer with some “grab and go” frozen vegetables.

Davis said the additional food options are allowing the store to continue accepting food stamps, which can't be used for non-food items. He said a few customers do most of their grocery shopping at the store, using SNAP electronic fund transfer cards.


Still, a banana costs about the same as a 2-liter soda. It can be a tough sell with the smell of hot fries enveloping you. Some of the bananas are getting brown.


Davis acknowledges that he can't sell what people don't want, and more education is needed before there will be a strong demand for healthier options. The store sells green beans, bread, and milk – but it also has a big rack of pork rinds.


Davis notes that groceries take up 40 percent of the floor space in a convenience store like his, but bring in only 5 percent of the net profit.


“Profitability is the bottom line, but we can do it in a manner that is still good for the community,” he said.

Markets and Gardens


Credit Heather Duncan
Pastor Chris Battle stands in the community garden outside Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Knoxville.

Tabernacle Baptist made a push for fresh fruits and vegetables in East Knoxville this year by starting its own community garden as well as creating the market with Nourish Knoxville, the Tennessee chapter of National Women in Agriculture, and other groups.


The market wasn't equipped to accept the electronic transfer cards that SNAP provides to pay for food (actual “food stamps” don’t exist anymore). It has applied for a grant to cover the technical cost of handling them next year, Battle said.


“We had people come with food stamps and we couldn't take them,” he said.


AARP doubles the value of food stamps spent at the downtown farmer’s market and the New Harvest farmer's market.


Russomanno is co-owner of Two Chicks and a Farm in Jefferson County. At her farm, which mostly produces vegetables, fruit and eggs, she hopes to develop a program that would allow local residents to help in exchange for food. She'd also like to see more farmers working with food banks like Second Harvest to help distribute fresh fruits and vegetables.


One of the founders of the Eastside Sunday Market is Vivian Williams, who lives near Asheville highway and started the local chapter of Tennessee Women in Agriculture. A few years before, she had started a small market at the corner of MLK and Chestnut Street, but it outgrew the location and folded. She was happy to revive something similar where she can sell and her sister sell the salsa, chowchow and pickled okra they can together.


Williams says it's important to offer more fresh food in East Knoxville. “People here go to the grocery store twice a month when they can get people to take them,” she said.


Tabernacle also started a community garden behind the church this year, making plots available to neighbors and leaving some of the harvest in baskets on its fence to share with passersby.


Even on a late fall day, the garden was still flowing with peppers and tomatoes. Pole beans climbed the fence willy-nilly, greens grew scraggly and huge, and loofah vines – which grow the kind of squash made into upscale scrub brushes – exploded with huge, oblong fruits. Gangly herbs stretched up from empty tires verdant with late-season, neglected abundance.


Battle said he has recruited four other churches in East Knoxville to start their own small community gardens next year, and Davis has offered Tabernacle space next to operate an additional garden next door to his community store at Five Points. Davis says people have already approached him to ask if they can sell what they grow outside the Stop N Go. He said sure.


Battle said, “The goal is to get nutritious food to people and to build a sense of community.” Eventually he would like the churches to teach residents to how and what to grow, as well as how to harvest, can and sell the produce.


The Eastside Sunday Market could then become a source of income for locals, too. It saw more than 1,000 customers over the summer, even with just six weeks of pre-planning and a small number of vendors. Battle considers the effort a success – partly as he sees neighbors try new things.


When Hannah Arata, who manages the nearby urban Abbey Fields farm, brought kohlrabi to sell at the market, Battle says he told her, “Black people don't eat kohlrabi or know what it is.” She cut one up and dipped it in local honey. “They loved it,” Battle said. “It's exposure.”


Kids at the market – and at some other Nourish Knoxville markets – can jain a kids' club to sample new fruits and vegetables, then get $5 in vouchers to spend on produce at the market.


“This is my favorite market, because for the demographic, it's pretty significant just to be here,” Arata said. “People came who said they'd never seen a zucchini in their life. This is how they get introduced to honey and vegetables.”