Op-Ed: A Southern City Gets Moving on Nutrition and Public Health
The Works

Op-Ed: A Southern City Gets Moving on Nutrition and Public Health

How nimble local infrastructure is delivering fresh food and keeping citizens healthy.

Residents of Spartanburg, S.C. purchase fresh produce from a mobile farmers’ market. Credit: Ana Parra/Hub City Farmers’ Market

Infrastructure is about more than roads and rail. Ultimately, these networks provide for basic human needs, and perhaps none is more essential than access to nutrition. But even in an age when the global marketplace provides the average consumer with more choices in sustenance than ever before, many low-income communities still face a chronic lack of access to healthy food options, a situation that has lead to public health crises. At least one South Carolina city sees the connection between infrastructure and food access, and is finding ways to address it.

Like many cities in the South, Spartanburg has a typical American story. The region is naturally rich in resources and fertile farmland, and profited heavily from cotton mills that dotted the riverbanks during the post-Civil War era. Spartanburg’s position along key transportation routes earned it the nickname “Hub City” and brought even more wealth to the region as its goods were delivered across the country. But in the midst of 20th-century economic shifts, the city lost its textile industry and has been working ever since to reinvent itself. In the 1990s, it won large international contracts that laid the groundwork for a new type of economic development: It is now the U.S. headquarters for BMW and other multinational companies.

Yet even as Spartanburg adjusted to new economic realities, it still faced a major challenge. Unhealthy lifestyles were leading to major public health health issues, especially obesity and diabetes.

In 1999, the city created working groups sponsored by a local foundation that focused on significant public health issues. A diabetes task force led to the formation of the non-profit Spartanburg Nutrition Council, which worked to educate children about healthy eating habits, particularly those in the areas without access to healthy products — also known as food deserts — and low-income neighborhoods. But they ran into a problem.

“Education was only getting us so far,” said Ana Parra, executive director of the Hub City Farmers’ Market (formerly the Spartanburg Nutrition Council) and a local food justice advocate. “We realized that without proper access to fresh food, children would not have the opportunity to actually eat healthier.”

The initial answer was surprisingly simple — community gardens. Parra’s non-profit has started more than 40, and currently helps maintain 12 gardens in local schools and throughout the city, while working with residents to start their own patches. It also found retail locations for farmers to sell their produce and developed a farmers’ market that is now open two days a week. The market started with a dozen participants and has grown to more than 50 rotating vendors throughout the season. All are required to sell only locally grown produce.

The progress in Hub City has earned attention. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded Spartanburg a Healthy Kids Healthy Communities grant in 2009 to help combat childhood obesity. That same year, the Hub City Farmers’ Market partnered with the Metropolitan Studies Institute to conduct a food inventory to locate food deserts throughout the community. When they realized that some areas didn’t have access to local products, Hub City Farmers’ Market decided to create a mobile market — a food truck that travels to food deserts and sells locally produced fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. Both the mobile market and participating brick-and-mortar stores accept food stamps and EBT cards, a policy that ensures everyone can afford fresh produce.

In 2011, a Spartanburg partnership received a Healthy Food Financing Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, allowing it to create a new space that will serve as a central location for the farmers’ market, an urban farm, a cafe, a learning space for the community and local farmers, as well as a retail space to sell fresh fruits and groceries. The Healthy Food Hub will be located in Spartanburg’s Northside, a low-income neighborhood that the city hopes to revitalize under a larger community development effort. The Hub is already creating local jobs and will be completed in December.

By aggressively tackling issues of food security and public health with new infrastructure such as the Healthy Food Hub and mobile market, Spartanburg is creating a healthier, more vibrant community for all its citizens. The city and its local non-profits are literally sowing a healthier lifestyle into the community, directly countering the diabetes and obesity epidemics menacing so many cities in the South.

Reconnecting America is a grantee of the Surdna Foundation.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Tags: infrastructurethe workshealthfood desertsfarmers markets

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