February 24, 2021

CHANG | Finding Food in the Desert

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Finding healthful food while living off-campus is the second most difficult task to do as a Cornellian — only passing “Introduction to Wines” is harder. We need creative solutions from the University and the municipal government to help encourage healthier eating habits in Ithaca’s food desert.

It might surprise you that much of Ithaca is actually part of a food desert, according to the USDA’s definition. In an urban area — I know, it might be a bit rich to call Ithaca urban, although it’s also not exactly rural — a food desert requires the absence of a full-service grocery store in a one-mile radius. Much of the northwest and southern areas of the 14850 zip code area fit this definition.

Unsurprisingly, a large body of literature corroborates the negative effects of food deserts. The existence of food deserts is primarily stratified along socioeconomic and racialized lines, with minority underserved communities being disproportionately affected by a lack of access to healthy food. A lack of food sovereignty is also related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and might play a role in obesity rates, although there is no clear consensus yet. This is especially a problem during the pandemic, as grocery store hours may be reduced and finding safe transportation may be even more difficult. It would behoove each of us to be aware and thoughtful of how our local community can or cannot have access to high quality and nutritious food.

When I lived on campus, I paid very little attention to my food. All I needed to do was walk to RPCC or a West Campus dining hall (it was never Appel, if I had the option) and I was presented with the ability to choose between a variety of entrees, sides and most importantly, Cornell Dairy ice-cream. Over the past few years, Cornell Dining has been working to offer healthier menus and provide more information in order to fit student needs, although there’s still lots of room to improve. Regardless, I never went hungry.

Only when I began living off-campus did I realize what a struggle it could be to do three very fundamental things: buy groceries, eat healthily and eat affordably. Collegetown, while it has its fair share of restaurants, is far from the nearest grocery store that isn’t GreenStar. If you can afford the steep prices and buy into its “co+op” model, great. But, in no way is it a catch-all for providing food for struggling college students. The restaurants aren’t much better either; the priority of food companies and restaurants typically isn’t one’s nutritional or food needs, but simply selling their product.

To put it bluntly: If you don’t own a car, you’re screwed. There are few good alternatives to controlling your access to groceries. You can find a friend (definitely the best bet, although not everyone has friends with cars and working out times is a hassle), walk (have fun with hypothermia in the winter), ride the bus (I too love running on the TCAT schedule) or get groceries delivered (which is expensive, and Greek yogurt really isn’t the same as plain yogurt).

Though, there are other areas of Ithaca that have it worse. The combination of poverty and low access to food can be deadly. Many who live on the edges of town and in isolated areas of Tompkins County have even more difficulty. The City of Ithaca should work with local stakeholders and the University to provide students and other residents of the community with better access to healthy food. 

Some solutions have been implemented and are a step in the right direction. I’m hoping that the new Trader Joe’s that opened Feb. 19 just south of downtown Ithaca will help both Cornell students and Ithaca College students, given its proximity to the other — albeit less cool — hill. Food pantries in Ithaca such as Loaves & Fishes and Ithaca Rescue Mission are also great resources. 

Anabel’s Grocery, a student-run and student-founded co-op with free membership hosted in Anabel Taylor Hall, is reopening March 1 after months of advocacy. The University shut the operation down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Community organizations and students do care about food justice. We as students need easy ways to access groceries and healthy food. Yet, the University washes their hands clean of any responsibility for student dining after we leave on-campus housing. I suppose we don’t pay room and board, but Cornell should care enough about the welfare of its students to not actively obstruct attempts to encourage food justice and healthy eating habits, even if the University does not actively advocate for such efforts. The same goes for the city: Food security is paramount to the health and safety of Ithaca residents. Build more grocery stores and make them easier to access.


Darren Chang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Thursday this semester.