Zel & Mary Lowman Elementary school is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Las Vegas. It is adjacent to Nellis Air Force Base, the average salary is around $22,000 and many parents don’t have cars.
The nearest grocery store is six miles away.
“For many areas within my district five to six miles is the average radius for access to a grocery store,” said County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick. “They are shopping in Dollar General, Green Valley Grocery or another little liquor store that they do have.”
“It’s troublesome for me to be in one of these liquor stores and watch a mom use her food stamps and have to spend $82 on macaroni and cheese and know that is all those kids are going to get to eat,” said Kirkpatrick.
The area surrounding the school is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to as a food desert — an area where a significant number (at least 500 people) or at least 33 percent of the population is greater than 1 mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store for an urban area.
The area around Nellis AFB, North Las Vegas, the Boulder Highway strip — multiple areas of the Las Vegas valley meet the Agriculture Department’s criteria for being food deserts, which often overlap with significant percentages of residents without access to a vehicle.
Kirkpatrick said she has been reaching out to grocery stores across the country in order to establish one in her district and alleviate the lack of available fresh food for the community, but because of the area’s low incomes and the dearth of retail space, pulling in grocery stores has been extremely difficult.
“They need to know there is a base of people who will shop at their store and spend money,” said Kirkpatrick.
To address the food desert in the area surrounding Zel & Mary Lowman Elementary and the immediate need for fresh food, Kirkpatrick contacted Green Our Planet, a nonprofit that works to build school gardens. The gardens are pitched by the organization as a method of improving STEM education with hands-on project learning.
Out of the classroom, the school now harvests food grown in their garden and sells it to residents in the surrounding community who do not have access to a grocery store and little money to spare for pricier corner markets.
Commission district B, Kirkpatrick’s district, sprawls across much of the northern portion of the Las Vegas metro area, and includes parts of North Las Vegas. With an estimated population of 331,000, the district will have to depend on more than school gardens to supplement the lack of fresh produce.
“It doesn’t address the issue,” said Kirkpatrick about the school garden, “but at the same time I don’t have retailers begging me to come in, that’s for sure. We are out there head hunting them ourselves.”
“I would love to incentivize grocery stores,” said Kirkpatrick. She believes more needs to be done in the legislature to attract smaller grocery stores to neighborhoods in food deserts.
‘Students don’t eat healthy’
In 2014 Governor Brian Sandoval established the Governor’s Council on Food Security. Part of Nevada’s action plan to improve food security includes increasing school gardens in order to “supplement a household’s supply of fresh produce or encourage entrepreneurial efforts.”
But it wasn’t until the 2017 legislative session that a bill was passed to create an appropriation for the creation of school gardens, setting aside $610,000 when Green Our Planet introduced and lobbied for the legislation.
“A lot of our schools are in food deserts,” said Ciara Byrne, co-founder and co-CEO of Green Our Planet.
Green Our Planet works with any school that applies for a garden, and they are popular, with 137 school gardens built and 40 to 50 more schools on the waiting list at any given moment.
The overwhelming majority of the gardens are in Title-1 schools — the federal designation given to public schools located in low-income neighborhoods. Byrne said that while they do not specifically look for Title-1 schools or schools in food deserts they are aware of the fact that they serve many of these schools.
“We haven’t been approached to be a part of the solution necessarily,” said Byrne, “but a lot of teachers are often driven by the fact that their students don’t eat healthy.”
Byrne said she has never asked a teacher if they want a garden because they are in a food desert, but when they first designed the curriculum that accompanies the gardens, teachers in Clark County advocated for a unit on Food Justice that includes a section on food deserts.
Part of the unit was designed by Laura Urtubey, a teacher at Crestwood Elementary in the central part of the valley. The school serves students living in a food desert and has one of the largest gardens.
“That’s quite a hefty thing to be learning about in the fifth grade, but that’s a huge part of the curriculum,” said Byrne. “They are fifth graders and they are the only ones providing fresh food within a two-mile radius. They’re growing the food and now they are selling it to their parents. As a fifth grader, you grasp that and it’s very empowering.”
Food desert? What’s that?
Edna F. Hinman Elementary along Boulder Highway has sold produce at its farmer’s markets before and after school since they started their garden last year. They are also located in one of Henderson’s two food deserts.
More than 30 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and a majority of the residents have to travel over a mile to a grocery store. The City of Henderson originally connected the school with Green Our Planet as part of their action plan to expand food distribution to neighborhoods located within food deserts.
Jennifer Estes, a special education teacher at Hinman, said the school’s location within a food desert was a large motivator in applying for the garden.
“I’m actually a resident of this neighborhood, too, and there are a lot of people who are not being serviced. They don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables because it’s a far bus ride. It’s not even walking distance to get to a grocery store where you can buy things,” Estes said. “There are a couple of gas stations, there’s a McDonalds now, you know, but that’s not healthy and that’s pretty much what they can access.”
A lack of understanding on how food deserts affect communities or even a lack of knowledge on what a food desert is can leave the issue unacknowledged despite its prevalence.
When asked about the food desert surrounding Hindman Elementary in his district, State Assemblyman Richard Carillo was unaware of what a food desert was, and said that none of the constituents he’d talked to had raised the issue.
“You’re the first one to bring up something like that up at all,” said Carillo.
Jim Gibson, the Clark County commissioner who represents the area, did not respond to email and phone messages.
“In the last three years we’ve had a Panda Express, a Taco Bell, an El Pollo Loco, and a Del Taco go up within a short time of one another and no fresh options for the community residents,” said Assemblyman William McCurdy of his district.
McCurdy’s district is in North Las Vegas— a city with a high rate of poverty and high concentration of minority communities. While campaigning, an issue that came up again and again among his constituents was the lack of grocery stores and fresh food.
“It’s no secret that my district is a very low-income area,” said McCurdy. “Historically there wasn’t an appetite to set up a business there. It doesn’t have the market they’re looking for. So what has to happen is that you have to be very proactive in creating legislation that would make it more appetizing for them to come.”
McCurdy has heard rumors that one of the few grocery stores in his district is shutting down. He will be working to create policy that would allow for tax credits for new and existing businesses that provide fresh quality options in an effort to lure more grocery stores into the area.
Courtney Coughenour, an assistant professor in the School of Community Health Sciences at UNLV whose research has focused on food access and community food environments, said there are ways to tackle food deserts and create healthier communities including incentivizing grocery stores to move to certain neighborhoods with tax credits, a revolving loan fund program, reducing property taxes on grocery stores for certain neighborhoods, and increasing SNAP dollars for people in these neighborhoods so they can buy more food.
“The truth is these are for-profit stores. They do all these cost-benefit analyses before going into an area to see if they can sustain a store. Without those tax incentives, they might not think it’s worth it.”
Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery store company, has more than 40 food stores in Nevada, including its Smith’s subsidiaries. The company has long been criticized nationally for not serving low-income communities, most recently this spring when it announced it was closing several stores in Georgia, Tennessee and other states, including the company’s home state of Ohio.
“Because we operate a ‘penny profit’ business, we must sometimes make tough decisions in order to keep our prices low for all customers,” the company said at the time in a statement.
For the first quarter of 2018, Kroger reported an adjusted net income of $626 million. During that quarter, the company also rewarded shareholders by repurchasing $1.8 billion of its own stock.
“A lot of folks are really struggling. A lot of folks don’t have cars, they can’t get to the grocery store,” McCurdy said. “What’s happening is that people are being offered less and less, essentially, because they are poor.”