Draining the Food Swamp

Unbalanced landscape of food access in Santa Fe puts Southside in fight for healthy eating options

Driving from north to south, Santa Fe slips from adobe mansions built into the dusky foothills to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods, boutique shops and gourmet restaurants of downtown. The scene shifts quickly from there into the Southside, sloping gently downward into the suburbs and out toward the wider desert.

Lining Cerrillos Road and its tributaries is a mix of businesses: carnicerias, panaderias, Mexican restaurants of varying authenticity. Then there are the fast food joints, rising from seemingly every sidewalk and street corner.

Heading farther south to the blurred line between the city's edge and the desert's beginning, there are swaths of vacant space—a distance that for many people is insurmountable—between homes and places to buy healthy food. Along with the chain restaurants, dollar stores and convenience stores dot those empty spaces.

Many families in this farthest southern portion of the city can't afford or reasonably access fresh vegetables and other healthy foods. It takes substantial effort to get to a grocery store.

Researchers have long-identified Santa Fe, in Southside council Districts 3 and 4 in particular, as a network of both food deserts (low-income neighborhoods that lack easy access to healthy, affordable food) and food swamps (places where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods).

That's no secret in the capital city.

Through a close analysis of government data bolstered by spot checking and mapping tools, SFR has found that the problem appears to be worsening, particularly on the Southside, where fast food restaurants and convenience stores outnumber grocery stores at a higher ratio than ever.

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Upside-down food access like that can have consequences, particularly for impoverished, non-white communities without reliable transportation, researchers say. Food deserts and, even more so food swamps, are hotbeds of diet-related illness.

"Balanced food environments where someone steps out into their neighborhood and they're equally enticed to shop healthy and unhealthy, that's where we want to get to," says Kristen Cooksey-Stowers, the main author of a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity on food swamps. "If you're wanting to make healthier choices, your built environment shouldn't be working against you. It shouldn't be hurdle after hurdle to decide between getting produce at a grocery store and passing through McDonald's."

But those are exactly the hurdles Southsiders face. It's easy to picture swaths of the area that way: Calorie, sodium and sugar-dense foods like Wendy's hamburgers and Allsup's chimichangas abound.

A recently completed study from Christus St. Vincent connects the food landscape to instances of disease.

Youth obesity is on the rise in Santa Fe, the study found, and nearly 80% of the adults in the county are not getting the recommended number of fruits and vegetables per day. People interviewed for the study said excessive access to fast food played a major part in unhealthy eating habits, and many identified lower socioeconomic status as a driver of chronic disease.

Coalitions of local politicians, activists and nonprofits have tried in the past to increase healthy food access on the Southside. One former Southside city councilor says he tried to regulate the number of fast food restaurants in his district through zoning changes around 2012, but the idea died quietly without broader support.

Yet the Southside is more than a food swamp and desert. While unhealthy food options and the shortage of grocery stores is a common complaint, there is also a network of tiendas serving the Hispanic and Latino populations that live in the area.

Organizations like The Food Depot and Earth Care are also filling the gaps the city has left open through careless planning and development—and some people believe local stores and other efforts cancel the need for a big-box grocery store.

A known issue

The phenomenon of the food swamp is more than anecdotal; it's codified.

In 2011, the Center for Disease Control rated the city's farthest southern corner as a food swamp. Four years later, the USDA's Food Access Research Atlas mapped the Southside as a food desert, where low-income people are more than a mile from the nearest grocery store.

The USDA also found that fast food restaurants increased in Santa Fe County from 90 to 109 between 2009 and 2014. That's a 21% increase, most of it on the  Southside where the city is developing the fastest.

SFR's analysis found 49 fast-food restaurants, three dollar stores and eight Allsup's convenience stores south of St. Michael's Drive, plus eight grocery stores. But only Walmart Supercenter, Target, Sprouts Market and Mini Super Delicias sit south of Zafarano Road.

Conversely, north of St Michael's Drive, in a slightly smaller geographic area, there are seven grocery stores that have to contend with three Allsup's, one dollar store and just 26 fast-food restaurants.

The proliferation of convenience stores, fast food restaurants and dollar stores (an often overlooked culprit in a swampy food desert) are concentrated in the city's southern portion, which holds a heavier proportion of Santa Fe's 54% Latino population. Most of the city's poverty disproportionately affects Latinos: According to the latest Census projections, around 40% of Hispanic and Latino people are living in poverty throughout Santa Fe.

Just a few hours on the Southside is more than enough to bring all that data to life.

Creating the map

SFR created the map using geographic information system (GIS) mapping and data from Esri, the USDA and the US Census Bureau. Esri supplies software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications. We also spot-checked the restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores for location and accuracy.

We labeled an establishment as a fast food restaurant using the loose definition from the US government: a limited-service place where patrons generally order or select items and pay before eating.

We chose to only include Allsup's convenience stores on the map because it is one of the most well-known companies in New Mexico for fast shopping. However, any gas station that also sells food inside, such as hot food to grab, snacks and candy are also typically identified in food swamp studies, including a publication used in this story from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. That means SFR's map likely presents a conservative picture of the city's food swamps.

The food swamp effect

On a weekday afternoon at Riverside Mobile Home Park, The Food Depot volunteers spoon out hot vegetables, meat and rice for a group of families and kids at the neighborhood's community center. Younger children play while their parents or caretakers eat and try to drag them back to their plates.

Riverside is one of four locations for The Food Depot's eight-week summer meal program, which takes free meals into mobile home communities in Santa Fe, mostly on the Southside. Each location attracts about 25 people a day.

The program aims to provide healthy food in places where there otherwise isn't much.

That's Riverside, which sits in the far southwest portion of the city. Nearby: a Family Dollar, Dollar General, an Allsup's and a McDonald's. The closest full-service grocery store is Walmart Supercenter—4 miles away.

It could be considered a classic swamp. A recent study from the Rudd Center found that a typical food swamp has four unhealthy eating options for every healthy option. The study also found that the presence of a food swamp is a stronger predictor of adult obesity rates than the absence of full-service grocery stores, such as in a food desert.

The food swamp effect is stronger in areas with greater income inequality, with disproportionate effects on poorer sections of towns, and where fewer residents have cars—hallmarks of the Southside.

The Rudd study found that minorities and low-income people are more likely than whites to live near unhealthy food retailers.

"Do the residents stand a chance to get optimal health? In these areas where there is low access to reliable transportation, the food swamp effect is much higher," Cooksey-Stowers, the Rudd Center researcher, tells SFR in a telephone interview. "We have these areas where not only are people close to inequitable food environments but they are stuck there from a mobility sense. Higher income people are navigating outside of their immediate neighborhood. They can broaden their food choice set."

Earlier this year, Christus St. Vincent released its 2017–2019 Community Health Needs Assessment. The examination reflects the Rudd Center's findings. Heart disease and diabetes, both diet-related diseases, consistently have ranked in the top 10 leading causes of death in New Mexico.

Southsiders who responded for the study "noted that although [Santa Fe's] chronic disease and obesity rates are lower, the economic disparities between rich and poor in Santa Fe make the data seem more positive than it actually is," the study reads. "They expressed that there is a segment of our population with financial means who can afford preventative care, healthy food and time for physical activity that casts the data in a different light."

The demise of the food oasis

There have been previous attempts to prevent or remedy the Southside's food access problems, notably the Food Oasis, a team composed of city councilors, activists and nonprofits, whose goal was to bring a grocery store to the city's southwest corner. It formed around 2015.

"It had a lot of good ideas and I think a lot of potential," District 3 Councilor Chris Rivera tells SFR. "Unfortunately, none of the grocery stores were really interested."

The coalition fell apart after about a year. But Rivera thinks there's still a need for more food access in the area—along with more bus service.

"I think a grocery store somewhere on Airport [Road] would be great," he says. "And clearly transportation needs to get better and provide a faster service."

Rivera and other city leaders acknowledge the lack of food access. But they have no plans to address the systemic issues that led to and exacerbated the food swamp effect. Those issues include what's been built in the area since a 2012 overlay zoning ordinance went into effect.

While the law aimed to incentivize businesses such as gyms, doctor's offices and grocery stores with fee waivers, it did little to restrict development of fast food restaurants, convenience stores and dollar stores.

Former city councilor Carmichael Dominguez spearheaded the idea.

"We kind of toyed around with fast food stuff but the overarching theme to the whole entire overlay zone was healthy lifestyles," he tells SFR. "It wasn't about getting rid of fast food restaurants. It was about what can we do to make sure that, as it is in every other community of poverty, every place you shop is not fast food or convenience stores?"

Yet that's not what happened.

"I actually had a policy written up that was going to regulate fast food restaurants and I just completely blew it out," Dominguez says. "I saw this division between what's healthy and what's not healthy food."

Area residents delivered a message, he says: "We just want food, we don't even care if it's healthy or not. We just want access."

Communities against the swamp

Zona del Sol, typically filled with the sounds of children talking and playing, is quiet and empty as Miguel Angel Acosta, co-director of Earth Care, sets a brown paper bag on the table. Inside are ripe apricots he picked from his yard that Friday morning.

Acosta has worked on food access issues in Santa Fe since 2011, when he first teamed up with Dominguez to push the overlay district.

"We were trying to get people to understand that there was another part to the Southside that needed to be taken into consideration: different consumption patterns, different ideas around healthy food, different needs in terms of even having food pyramids make sense to other cultures," Acosta says. "Also that there were other connected issues that needed to be addressed that a big box wouldn't resolve."

He proposed a "mercado system" of smaller stores to sit on city land and be managed by the city that employed residents who would sell food and provide nutrition education. The spaces would also include community gardens.

It fell apart, Acosta says, "because there was no interest."

Real estate developers opposed the idea because "they saw it as a gateway drug to socialism," Acosta says, laughing without much humor and tapping his fingers on the table.

What the Southside doesn't need, he continues, is a big-box grocery store that will depress wages and not solve the transportation issue, which forces many people to walk to a nearby Allsup's, dollar store or McDonald's for a meal.

Because of people like Cesar Araiza, who owns Panaderia Sani y Tortilleria and a carniceria on the Southside, Acosta says the area's people have most of what they need.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Araiza and one of his longtime employees stand around a table covered in flour and fresh dough. In the warm kitchen at the back of his store, they make beer empanaditas for La Fonda. Some have strawberry filling, some pineapple or sweet potato; all are handmade using a mason jar to create the perfect circle of dough. Each one looks identical to the one before it.

His stores offer different Mexican pastries, take out food, cakes, tortillas, bread and meat.

"In our culture, we buy groceries from small stores, like a carniceria," Araiza says. "I don't want a big supermarket around here, of course."

But he also knows that small businesses like his, as well as residents, have difficulty finding fresh, affordable food.

"What I think Santa Fe needs is a big wholesale store," Araiza says. "I've been planning to get a big warehouse for Hispanic food because sometimes [finding it] is kind of hard."

Food in Santa Fe is so expensive, he adds, it's cheaper for him to source some ingredients and products for his stores from Albuquerque, Denver, Texas and California.

‘Access to healthy food is a right’

In a bright office at The Food Depot, Executive Director Sherry Hooper says that even the county's largest food bank has had trouble getting food into the Southside. Despite this half of the city having the least access to grocery stores, The Food Depot doesn't currently have a partner agency in the area.

"What we've ended up doing is treating it like we would a rural community," Hooper tells SFR. "When you look at the Southside, the fact that it is a food desert or food swamp, it is very much like a rural community in that they're relying on convenience stores, gas stations, things like that."

The agency holds a monthly mobile food pantry distribution at the city-owned Zona del Sol building. Long picnic tables are pushed together into the main room as Santa Feans walk around the large rectangle, picking from mountains of bread, strawberries, bananas and even wheatgrass.

Even with programs like the Food Depot and businesses like Araiza's continuing to pop up on the Southside, the food desert and swamp could persist for low-income communities throughout the city without different policy direction from city leaders, says Cooksey-Stowers of the Rudd Center. But officials would have to define the scope of the problem first.

"Taking a food swamp measure allows for policy makers and elected officials to know where, exactly, to focus their efforts, at least to start," she says.

City Parks and Recreation Director John Muñoz tells SFR the city hopes to add more community gardens and expand existing ones, like at Colonia Prisma on the Southside. The next one planned is at SWAN Park, possibly ready by the spring. It will be a "good sized" garden in the "growth part of town."

It's not all forward momentum.

At a recent community forum, developers from Tierra Contenta's next phase insisted that because of SWAN Park and "the new Walmart," the housing project did not need to have plans for green recreational spaces or access to food, like a grocery store, Acosta says.

"It would take some real political will to push back on real estate, to push back on the Chamber of Commerce," he says. "It would take some decisions by the city that access to healthy food is a right. Just like access to housing should be. The Super Walmart has been bad for business and it's been bad for people's health and bad for wages, salaries. This is an opportunity to create commercial spaces where we have access to healthy food."

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