Duwamish neighborhoods are a 'food desert' in foodie Seattle -
July 15, 2011
Seattle has gained a national reputation as a haven for “foodies” – but there’s a “food desert” in its own back yard, ironically in an area that once helped feed a growing city.
The area near the banks of the Duwamish River south of Seattle is where the founder of the Pike Place Market had his original farm. Today, some yards in that area are so contaminated with dioxins in the dirt, the health department advises residents not to grow their own gardens. It’s a place where waves of tribes and immigrants continue to fish the river as they have for decades, but where PCB’s in the river bed have made resident fish no longer safe to eat.
After a century of industrial use, the lower Duwamish River now runs through one of the largest urban Superfund sites in the country. A recent examination of public health data by InvestigateWest revealed that residents who live in the vicinity face more chronic health problems than people who live in other parts of the county. Data show residents in the Duwamish communities are typically more overweight, and have higher incidence of diabetes and more deaths from heart disease. Life expectancy in the area is five years lower than for other, more affluent parts of King County, likely because of some combination of poverty, pollution, and lifestyle.
And food lies at the intersection of all those problems. Affordable nutrition– or lack of it – is at the heart of many of the health problems facing residents in the region along the Duwamish.
“It’s considered a food desert,” said Linn Gould, executive director of Just Health Action, a Seattle-based nonprofit that does education and outreach around health disparity issues. By definition, a food desert is a place where income, transportation and access issues make it difficult for people living in the area to acquire the kinds of foods required to maintain healthy diets.
South Park, in particular faces these kinds of access issues, she said.
The lone general grocery closest to South Park – a Red Apple -- sits just outside the city limits, cut off from nearby residential neighborhoods by a stream of traffic whizzing by on Highway 99. Though less than a mile away, it’s difficult to get to by foot or bus, and many residents don’t have cars.
If you don’t have a car, you take your life in your hands trying to cross the huge intersections, said BJ Cummings, policy advisor for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a nonprofit coalition working to improve the environment for the communities along the Duwamish. Residents who have cars typically shop elsewhere on their way to and from town. But for those without transportation, the selection is slimmer.
Some families turn to the river for food.
It’s for “subsistence – their daily dinner,” said Cummings. “They’re fishing for anything they can catch that day – boom fish, rock fish, even crab. And those have very high levels of PCBs, heavy metals and other chemicals from the river bottom.”
The health department has posted signs warning people not to eat what they catch, but angler surveys show that people still do.
Residents worry about the effect of these food access issues on their children.
“There’s no good food,” Libin Egal said of trying to feed her five children a healthy diet in South Park. Her oldest daughter, 14, was recently diagnosed with diabetes. It’s one reason she recently moved to a new home in the Greenbridge community in White Center where she said access to groceries is better.
The Discount Groceries store in South Park is well-stocked with canned and packaged foods, but its tiny produce department carried little but onions, bananas and plantains on a recent visit.
Lack of availability of fresh, affordable groceries amounts to “poverty tax” on residents, said Gould. Gould recounted the story a friend told describing the frustration of trying to shop for food in her South Park neighborhood.
She went to get a loaf of bread at her corner store, and it was so expensive that she chose instead to drive four miles away to get it at a cheaper price. But she doesn’t always have the time or energy to make that drive. Her friend believes her weight problem is due to the difficulty accessing healthy and affordable food in her community, Gould said.
Public health experts say living in a food desert can contribute to poor food choices.
“If people don’t have access to reasonably priced healthy food, they’ll go fill up on a Happy Meal,” warns Ali Mokdad, professor of Global Health in the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
South Park community leaders and residents have been fighting to address these problems by bringing in a weekly farmer’s market, and by advocating for more fresh foods in corner markets.
One of the biggest changes, however, is happening quite literally at the grass roots level at an urban growing project called Marra Farm.
Sue McGann claps dirt from her hands as she wanders the rows of Marra Farm in the heart of South Park’s industrial area. The persistent roar of jet engines marks time overhead, while a low dirt berm does little to drown out truck traffic grinding by on the highway just beyond the farm’s edge. The 4.5 acre farm is located on one of the last two original agricultural sites in South Park, which was once a fertile valley filled with truck farms. Scattered in nearby houses are the relatives and descendants of some of the first and most famous farmers in the area – the Desimone family, whose forefather founded the Pike Place Market.
“This is beautiful, incredible sandy loam,” she said. For the past seven years, McGann has been building a community garden here. Today, the bulk of what she grows supplies the local food bank, which feeds a good part of the low-income population in South Park and Georgetown.
That’s especially important to McGann, who had to rely on a food bank herself when she first moved to the Seattle area in the early 1980s.
“I was, to be honest, horrified at what was in the food bank – what was going out to people,” she said. “There was nothing fresh.”
Today she’s helping change that – but just growing the food is not enough.
Sue McGann waters a bed of quinoa at Marra Farms.
Photo by Carol Smith/InvestigateWest
The fresh produce at the food bank doesn’t always get used, in part because its not produce that’s familiar or widely used in many immigrant family recipes, said McGann.
Several community groups, including the nonprofit Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, and Solid Ground, which operates Marra Farm, in conjunction with local businesses and local health clinics, are trying to get people to eat more healthy food by offering information on new ways to incorporate unfamiliar produce into familiar recipes. They have also opened a “Pea Patch” on the grounds of Marra farm where families can grow their own familiar food.
The coalition has also been talking to local corner stores about replacing cigarette and alcohol ads near their cash registers with bins of apples or other healthy snacks. And there are also discussions in the works about starting a “community kitchen” program, where people can come together to prepare a week’s worth of healthy meals, using local and organic produce, McGann said.
Still, it remains difficult for many people to eat a healthy diet, she said. Food access issues are deep and complex. Providing food is only part of the solution.
McGann still remembers a child who used to come help her on harvest day. The little girl was overweight, and one day when they were done digging, McGann offered to fix her a bag of produce to take home.
“And she said, ‘Well I can’t really do that,’ ” McGann recalled. “ ‘Because I live with my dad, and we don’t have a stove.’ ”
Forests and the Economy | May 2015
Environmentalists and the timber industry — once bitter adversaries — are working as allies on forest restoration. Collaborative forest thinning projects aim to fight megafires before they start — but money is scarce and tens of thousands of acres acres in Oregon now face an elevated risk of catastrophic fire. Ben DeJarnette reports for InvestigateWest.
Equity | April 2015
Cash reigns in the Portland housing market. The city faces pressure from a new kind of speculation, as investors buy thousands of homes with cash and long-established protections for bank-financed homebuyers are ignored. Lee van der Voo and James Gordon report for InvestigateWest.
Wealth and Poverty | March 2015
March 2015 marks the anniversary of a bold promise: King County's 10-year plan to end homelessness. Now that the 10-year plan is ending and local homelessness is worse than ever, talk of ending homelessness is being replaced with less-lofty aspirations: making homelessness rare and brief when it does occur.
In collaboration with KUOW this week, we examine the roots of the plan, the challenges it faced, and where community and city leaders think we go from here.
Equal Justice | December 2014
With grand jury reform elsewhere focused on eliminating racial bias and curbing police use of force, Oregon is an outlier: It is one of just 14 states that do not regularly record the citizen grand juries that charge people with felonies.
Almost five years after police killed an unarmed black man in Portland and the Multnomah Co. district attorney petitioned for that grand jury to be recorded, lawmakers in Salem are lining up behind a reform bill to mandate recording statewide, InvestigateWest has learned.
Seafood | December 2014
A struggle in Alaska over shrinking supplies of halibut is threatening the iconic centerpiece fish in favor of cheaper exports, fast-food fillets and fish sticks.
At risk is most of the frozen supply that sustains restaurants, food-service companies and retail stores nationwide, such as Costco and Whole Foods. Lee van der Voo investigates.
Photo: Peter Haley / The News Tribune
Environment | November 2014
It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Duwamish River. But how clean is clean? And who decides?
Robert McClure looks at how lobbyists and community groups have squared off over the health of the waterway and its neighborhoods.
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com
Trafficking | October 2014
Authorities say organized gangs increasingly are trafficking children for sex in the Northwest, and even cooperating with each other to stymie police.
Meanwhile in Portland, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has become the third most prolific nationally in securing indictments for trafficking children and adults for sex.
Photo: Oregon DOT/Flickr
Minimum Wage | August 2014
"Everyone is aware that passing a $15 an hour minimum wage was historic," an advisor to Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council told InvestigateWest. "But if we cannot enforce that, we haven't accomplished much."
Based on a review of more than 20,000 wage theft complaints, hundreds of pages of reports and more than a dozen interviews, "Stolen Wages" shines a light on the dark world of pay violations in Seattle and across Washington.
Infrastructure | May 2014
Portable, modular or relocatable classrooms — whatever you call them — are a necessity for cash-strapped schools.
But many portables become permanent fixtures, in place for decades at a time. Costly and insufficient, these aging structures burden the grid, frustrate teachers and administrators and compromise student health.
Environment | April 2014
Energizing our world with wood sounds so natural. And it has quickly become a multibillion-dollar industry as governments including British Columbia and the European Union turn to biomass to replace dirty old coal. Yet what we found when we dug into the coal-vs.-wood debate will surprise you.