18 Feb 2013
I came across the term “Food Desert” a couple of years ago after reading this article in the Roanoke Times. Having spent a large portion of my life in Montreal, Canada, a city where a convenience store was just a block away and the grocery store not more than a ten minute walk or five minute bus ride, I had come to take the availability of quality food for granted. But since I have moved down to the United States, I have lived in small towns that are typically characterized by a mix of suburbs and rural landscapes. There are many things I love here, but one thing that has always been a difficult pill for me to swallow is how so many of the towns and cities here are built to accomodate vehicles. Pedestrians are a complete afterthought, or are given no thought whatsoever. I did not own a vehicle before I moved to the states, and although I largely grew up in Montreal, I also spent time in small towns in Labrador and Ontario. Even in those small towns, the grocery store was never further than a 15 minute walk away and you could always catch a bus there, or ride your bike without having to contend with vehicle traffic.
In general, many cities and towns (with the exception of Toronto) in Canada are clustered instead of sprawling, and they are extremely bike friendly and pedestrian friendly. In contrast, thinking of the mall area in Christiansburg, you are almost risking life and limb if you try to cross the road from Walgreens to Starbucks for example. Sidewalks are non-existent in this area, despite the fact that it is a major shopping hub. The Huckleberry Trail is located at the mall, which is great, but I have to drive my bike there because I feel like riding my bike from my house 2 miles down Peppers Ferry Road would be a suicide mission. Speaking of bike paths, why are there not any bike paths going through downtown Blacksburg? And I’m sure I am not alone in saying that I cannot count how many times I have almost been hit by cars on campus.
I think by and large, the United States is overwhelmingly a culture built around cars, and this is part of the reason why there are food deserts. I was hoping that, with the rise in gas prices to over $4 a gallon in 2008, more pedestrian and bike friendly changes would be cropping up everywhere. But instead, at least where I have lived, I only saw many people complaining, travelling less, and more complaining. I was happy to see when I moved to Blacksburg that the city was full of cycling enthusiasts. But I find it is more of a hobby here than a way of life. In Montreal for instance, the city has a system of publicly available bicycles, BIXIBikes, that you can rent for almost no cost. There are more than 300 stations where you can take a bike out and return it to any other station in the city. Designated bike trails run through the entire city, off roads and beside roads. It is almost a hassle to own a car in many of the cities or towns where I have lived in Canada. I cannot say that about any place I have lived here. I often have to drive my bike somewhere in order to use it.
What does this all have to do with education? Well I think access is the key word here. Access to food, and transportation, healthcare facilities, education, libraires, and many other community amenities is tied into socio-economics. In short and simple terms, unequal access to food trickles down to all other aspects of life, including access to quality education.