There's a lot of talk about "food deserts" in food policy circles these days -- impoverished areas where residents have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Corner stores in poor neighborhoods tend to be one of the major sources for food, but they stock nonperishables: chips, sodas, and processed meats and cheeses. Get better grocery stores into these neighborhoods, the argument goes, and you'll see healthier neighbors. But pilot programs that have just introduced fresh vegetables into poor neighborhoods haven't taken off. That is, until the government got involved.
Last week, the University of Berkeley's Journalism School -- where Michael Pollan teaches -- launched The Ration, an online magazine about farming and nutrition. The standout article in this issue is by Annie Mathews, who wrote about a new initiative from WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) to turn corner stores in food deserts into full-scale markets with fresh produce, whole-grain breads, and healthier foods. Two years ago, Mathews writes, WIC changed the focus of its benefits from milk and cheese to fresh vegetables and fruits, and now offers incentives for corner stores to change what they stock.
According to Mathews, the program has been incredibly successful, by rewarding store owners and customers for stocking and purchasing fresh produce. And, with WIC participation up 14 percent since 2005, the momentum for changing minimarts to real markets keeps growing. That is, unless a bill cutting funding for WIC by $733 million, which was passed by the House of Representatives in June, gets signed into law. Then it might be back to sodas and chips for America's urban poor.