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Food Deserts & Affordable Housing

a red apple sitting on a cracked desert basin

Food is one of the basic necessities of life. Yet, a 2023 economic report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that hunger levels are at an all-time high; with an estimated 1 in 6 Americans struggling to access food. While there might be an impulse to look at alarming statistics like these and think, “never in my neighborhood,” that’s simply not the case. Even in a place as economically and agriculturally rich as Whatcom County, food deserts (areas without convenient access to full-service grocery stores) exist; and they’re not isolated problems.


Food insecurity and housing stability are inextricably linked. Hunger and lack of resources are often symptoms of a larger issue — cost-burdened citizens and poverty. Those living in areas where there are limited options to purchase food not only have to travel further to access healthy food, but also spend a disproportionate amount of their income to feed themselves.


As we begin to map out how we want our city to look 20 years from now, we must ask ourselves: Are we content with making our neighbors choose between feeding their families or putting a roof over their heads?

What is a Food Desert?

The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF®) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where resi­dents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods — especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Disproportionately found in high-poverty areas, food deserts create extra, everyday hurdles that can make it harder for kids, families and communities to grow healthy and strong.”


In a 2012 report, the USDA laid out the characteristics of food deserts:


“Food desert tracts tend to have smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment. Census tracts with higher poverty rates are more likely to be food deserts than otherwise similar low-income census tracts in rural and in very dense (highly populated) urban areas.”


The USDA findings were based on the more than 6,500 food deserts in the United States using 2000 and 2006 Census data, and the problem has not improved. Now, hunger levels are at an unprecedented high with 44.2 million Americans struggling to access enough food.


A recent survey of people across Washington found that grocery bills are a substantial cause of financial distress, and that nearly half of the respondents reported food insecurity in the past month. Unsurprisingly, these percentages were even higher in Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations where communities are systemically underserved.


For the better part of the last decade, Bellingham’s Birchwood neighborhood has been an “urban food desert,” with convenience stores being the closest resource for food. And, as we know, convenience stores do not offer a full range of nutritious food. Those with disabilities and those without personal transportation suffer the most.


Former Bellingham City Council Member and Mayoral Candidate, April Barker, is a strong advocate of the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters. In Fall 2016, Barker argued in this article that it is unlikely a person (let alone a family) is going to walk or take the bus over a mile then walk another quarter mile to carry groceries back home.


If we have entire communities living in stressful environments due to hunger and poverty, our cities cannot thrive. The concept and consequences of relationships between city life and mental well-being are well-demonstrated in the emerging field of Neurourbanism.

Food Deserts and Affordable Housing

The cost of living in Whatcom County is rising, this includes the price of staple foods like eggs, dairy, meat, and produce alongside rent and housing prices. Everyone is paying more to cover their basics, and the increased financial burden is exponentially greater for low-income households who likely lack the means to access healthy food choices in the first place. The fight against hunger is crucial, but we must tackle the root causes — financial strain and poverty.


According to an article from Time, “Supermarkets, where better choices are found, are three times as common in neighborhoods that are in the highest quintile of income as they are in communities in the lowest quintile." The reason is the lack of resources in underserved communities. It’s a vicious cycle: stores open where people have more spending power, meaning that poorer neighborhoods are habitually faced with limited or hard-to-reach options.


An article from the University of Washington School of Public Health reads, “Food insecurity was also greater among [Washington] residents who rent or have other living arrangements as compared to residents who own homes. Of all households experiencing food insecurity, 77% reported they were either ‘not getting by’ or ‘just barely getting by’ and over half of households with food insecurity said price increases were ‘very stressful.’” Closer to home, The City of Bellingham Washington Consolidated Plan Overview (June 2023 - July 2027) states: “24% of homeowners and 56% of renters are cost-burdened.”

What You Can Do to Better Bellingham

By the numbers, things seem bleak. But with preparations for Bellingham’s 2045 Comprehensive Plan well underway, the City Council has already begun taking steps in the right direction.


“Comprehensive Plan amendments have been approved to encourage grocery stores, farmer’s markets, food carts, and other mobile vendors to locate in underserved communities and in newly developing areas. In response to the closure of a long-time grocery store in the Birchwood neighborhood along with the prohibition of a new grocery store at that location by the property owner, the Council passed an ordinance that would prohibit future restrictive covenants on grocery stores in the City.”


It’s very encouraging to see these ordinances coming from the top, but ultimately, they are stop-gap measures. What we desperately need is affordable working-class housing. Freeing up discretionary funds for local residents by creating more housing can help combat hunger in our communities, as well as create and continue to develop the vibrant neighborhoods that make Bellingham a unique place to live.


Like a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, our city is only as strong as our most vulnerable community members. The onus falls upon us to participate in our local government to encourage the City to improve the quality of life in our existing neighborhoods, and proactively work to increase access to healthy food in areas, like the Cordata neighborhood, that has limited access to grocery stores.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.


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Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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