At the corner of North Temple and Redwood Road, Lisia Satini counts at least nine fast-food restaurants.
“We’re busy, working class, and sometimes we don’t have time to be cooking,” she said. “And when we’re looking for food, and all we have are fast-food options, it’s frustrating.”
Although Satini also can point to three grocery stores in her Fairpark and Rose Park area, making healthy food decisions can still be a struggle.
The problem isn’t just about not having enough nearby grocers. Food inequity instead is a multidimensional issue in west Salt Lake City.
It is evident every time Satini travels east to find more affordable healthy food options. It also haunts her when she can’t get culturally appropriate food in her own neighborhood, or when the stores don’t offer fresh and healthy choices.
She now is part of Food Equity Advisors, a Salt Lake City program dedicated to alleviating these differences.
The group organizes meetings with city residents from diverse backgrounds to gather input about barriers to food access. The goal is to produce a new food assessment to update the last one the city published in 2013. These advisers also help draft recommendations for the city to consider.
Now the program is proposing a Food Equity Resolution that “will acknowledge the need for changes in land use planning, zoning, environmental and housing policy, water management, transportation, parks and open space, economic development,” reads a 2021 report. It is expected to be discussed by the City Council in the coming months.
In their initial draft, the advisers called for a resolution to continue to make food equity a priority, updating the city’s existing food assessment and pursuing more leadership opportunities for diverse residents.
The hunger gap
In areas such as Glendale and some ZIP codes that Utah’s capital shares with neighboring South Salt Lake, 29% to 33% of adults worry about having enough money to buy food, according to 2015-2020 data from the Utah Department of Health.
Across the valley, in an east-bench area, that percentage is around 14%, less than half of what is found among lower-income communities and communities of color.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture also shows gaps in supermarket access. West-siders in the Ballpark, Fairpark, Glendale, Jordan Meadows, Poplar Grove and Rose Park neighborhoods have a harder time getting to grocery stores.
Food Equity Advisors gathered 13 residents to help put this data into context by explaining what challenges they see in their neighborhoods, issues they might have with already existing food programs, and what they consider to be culturally appropriate food. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New Haven, Connecticut, run similar projects.
The pilot program has wrapped up, and a new cohort is expected to start this year. The city is accepting applications to participate and hopes to host the new group’s first meeting in April.
“The west side of Salt Lake,” said Brian Emerson, Salt Lake City’s food and equity program manager, “without a doubt over the years, there’s been underrepresentation for sure, and underinvestment and outright institutional racism.”
While the locations of grocery stores have a direct impact on food accessibility, Emerson said, the food equity problem has many more layers.
Other obstacles include low incomes, lack of access to aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the rising cost of housing and other basics, and transportation shortcomings.
“Income is the determining factor,” he said. “But the food that might be available in a community, it’s just not right for the community.”
That was Satini’s case.
As a Pacific Islander, she had elements missing in her diet. She then was able to find taro leaves and green bananas in her area supermarket — a small victory, after bringing up the lack of diverse foods to a grocer in one of the city-organized meetings.
“Accessibility is huge,” she said, “especially for underserved communities.”
The advisers discussed the possibility of creating a food or cash voucher for those with limited access to SNAP and other assistance, giving residents more financial resources.
The city hasn’t made any commitments around this idea, Emerson said, but there have been internal talks and studies about how similar programs have worked in other cities.
The voucher could be similar to the Salt Laker Card, a COVID-19 relief program that provided $500 cash cards to people who didn’t receive stimulus checks because of their immigration status or other limitations. It was a partnership between the city and community organizations.
“This isn’t something we’re quite yet actively looking into,” Emerson said. “But we were intrigued by that idea.”
Another potential solution would allow residents to take matters into their own hands, literally, by growing their own food. The plan calls for teaming up with Wasatch Community Gardens to make community gardens available on city-owned land.
The west side already has such a garden near the 9-Line, Emerson said. Another is planned in Rose Park, and the city may revive Glendale’s Cannon Greens Community Garden, which shut down due to soil contamination, whenever it’s safe to do so.
This proposed initiative excites Eugene Simpson, another program adviser. Driving around the city, he can picture new community gardens or greenhouses emerging.
“There are new apartments in the city,” he said. “If you put in greenhouses and you let the people who live in the apartments know how to maintain the plants, they could also have fresh vegetables.”
Simpson, who lives in South Salt Lake but owns a barbershop in Rose Park, moved to Utah from Belize in 1996 and jumped at the chance to participate in the program as soon as he heard about it. He already plans to be part of the second cohort.
“Food was hard to come by. I was getting one slice of bread a day with a little bit of peanut butter,” Simpson said about his starting point as an immigrant. “I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.