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Clark County leaders, nonprofit try to fix Las Vegas' 'nutritional deserts,' but it's not easy

AP Photo/John Locher, File

FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2019, file photo people shop for food the day before the Thanksgiving holiday at a Walmart Supercenter in Las Vegas.

A substantial number of Nevadans live in what’s known as a food desert, where people have limited access to healthy food.

They’re typically found in low-income neighborhoods, meaning residents are forced to travel long distances to find basic groceries.

Research says food deserts are associated with chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

It’s been an issue in Las Vegas for many years, and one that Clark County commissioners have tried to fix. But it’s not easy. You can’t force a private business to open a supermarket in an area where they don’t think they’re going to be profitable.

Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick said big box stores don’t really work in these areas, but markets that meet the needs of the community makes sense. Then, of course, people have to get there.

In District B, Kirkpatrick said the average grocery store is about six miles away from residents. This district is the northern valley – east of Rancho Drive, west of I-15, and north of Craig Road.

“We're working to bring smaller grocery stores, and to show them how to grow their own food so that they can use their SNAP benefits wisely,” she said.

In the meantime, Clara Byrne co-founded Green Our Planet, a Las Vegas nonprofit that has helped 17 Nevada schools build gardens in low-income neighborhoods. Jeanne Toscano manages the group’s SNAP-ed program.

Toscano said she prefers to call these areas nutritional deserts, as there typically is access to high-fat fast food. While calorie needs may be met, vitamins and minerals are not.

“You're walking somewhere, and the only access you have is the local McDonald's or whatever fast-food restaurant is available, then you're going to spend your dollars where it's easy to get to,” Toscano said. “The other reality is that even when you do have stores that are within bus distance, their ability to get fresh fruits and vegetables, because of the shelf life, is difficult.”

She encourages families to apply for SNAP benefits, but also to use food banks, churches or other local organizations.

“We've made tremendous interest in the lower income areas,” Kirkpatrick said. “And we've also exposed them to new foods, which is always great for them to kind of know that you can grow a lemon tree, and you can have lemons, and do phenomenal things with lemons, for instance, bake a whole bunch of different things.”

Recently, she said the county funded a grocery store in a census tract that met a distance need. They’ve now done that in two locations: Laughlin and near Nellis Air Force Base.

Kirkpatrick continued, “There'll be smaller grocery stores, of course, but they've had to jump through some hurdles with getting insurance. It's hard to get because you have to have a certain return on your investment for the insurance companies because there's so much loss in grocery stores.”

She said they’ll continue to make those a priority for Clark County.

Toscano said for businesses to be successful in these areas, they need to build a relationship with the community. She said big box stores will stock a set type and amount of food that may not be culturally aware.

Byrne’s nonprofit, founded with her husband Kim MacQuarrie, has installed 277 outdoor hydro-gardens. They sponsor 200-plus student farmers markets annually.

She said access to these school gardens can help with a student’s challenging home life and mental health. They also have the opportunity to get students excited: “We always say that we want to inspire the next generation of scientists, conservationists, farmers and chefs and entrepreneurs.”

Having access to fresh food is one thing, but she said those in need of access also need education on how to make it, prepare it, buy it.

Byrne said only 2% of Americans grow their own food and that rural America has been "romanticized" with the idea that everyone rural is a farmer.

“What if you're in a small town in rural Nevada, and it's three hours to a supermarket, or if you're on a reservation, you're an Indigenous community, and it's six hours,” she said.

Kirkpatrick said in the east Las Vegas Valley, she’s seen kids be exposed to vegetables they never heard of before, so now they keep their gardens up to try new things.

“Yes, they may have started with the basic plants, but now they're doing microgreens, and now they're doing more fruit trees,” Kirkpatrick said.

Byrne said Southern Nevada is lucky, as we have a long growing season. Ultimately, though, several areas in the community have complex problems that need complex solutions.

“If you have any space outside your house, grow a garden. It's so much fun.”

To donate, apply for a garden or learn more about Green Our Planet, click here.

Marilyn Kirkpatrick, commissioner, Clark County; Ciara Byrne, co-founder, Green Our Planet; Jeanne Toscano, administrator, The Eat Healthier Program

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