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I vividly remember one of the most miserable experiences of my first few months in Indy. Neither my husband nor I had snagged a job yet, and we were coming to the end of our savings. We lived close to downtown but the nearest grocery store was 1.2 miles away. We needed food but really couldn’t spare money for an Uber (nor was there a direct bus route).
So my husband and I walked to and from the store, burdened by bags and the cold November wind whipped past us.
What if we were not two healthy, young, able-bodied adults?
What if we couldn’t afford the arguably high prices of a downtown Kroger?
What if we both hadn’t gotten job offers soon after that allowed us to purchase a car?
What is a food desert?
Broadly, food deserts are areas where access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.
The USDA has a great resource to show this information and they say this:
The Food Access Research Atlas maps food access indicators for census tracts using ½-mile and 1-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for urban areas, 10-mile and 20-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for rural areas, and vehicle availability for all tracts.
The 2015 records show that I do not live in a food desert, although I can’t think of a grocery store within a mile of my apartment – definitely not a half-mile.
I believe that data probably references several Double 8 Supermarkets not too far from my apartment; sadly, the low-cost chain closed down in mid-2015. Now, the closest grocery store is a Safeway 2.1 miles away which only has one small section of barely-fresh produce. This puts me well outside of the 1 mile definition of a food desert.
Additionally, because a majority of the residents in my area do not have access to a car, it becomes a high-risk neighborhood.
Luckily, I have a car, a steady job, and the flexibility of time to get where I need to go in order to shop well and on-budget.
Our usual food budget is usually around $40/week. We’re able to keep it low because I eat with the kids at work for breakfast and lunch every day. My husband may also be able to pick up an extra lunch at his work if there’s one hanging around.
That $40 goes up a bit when we’re both working, but right now my husband isn’t working so we’re hovering about $200 above Indy’s gross income monthly limit to qualify for SNAP. Thankfully we planned for it we’ll be OK – just cautious.
That being said, budget takes priority over zero waste now.
Check out my typical shop
First things first, let’s talk about what we already had rolling around our pantry/fridge. It’s not much, as we got used to doing smaller, more frequent trips to the store while living in Russia and never really moved past that. (Much easier when you’re buying lots of fresh food, anyway.)
- 1/2 box pasta
- 1 cup purple rice
- large container of oats
- Various mix of spices
- 2 cans of black beans
- 3 cans of veggies
Part 1: a Dollar Tree trip
Total price: $7.50
Distance from my house: 15 minute walk
Unsurprisingly, shopping zero waste at Dollar Tree was really, really hard. (If you don’t know, Dollar Tree is a store where everything costs $1.) There’s a ton of cheap, plastic crap and lots of pre-packaged food with little or no nutritional benefit.
I go to the Dollar Tree for canned goods, eggs, and the small carton of milk we use for coffee in the morning.
I wouldn’t normally get the eggs, but when I’m on a budget I will. I knew they’d be too expensive at the other store and I’m planning to use the packaging for buying eggs at the farmers market when they show up. (I bake. A lot.)
Part 2: a Fresh Thyme visit
Total price: $25.70
Distance from my apartment: 3.7 miles, 27 minutes by bus
A new Fresh Thyme just opened up in Broad Ripple which is very exciting! Previously, the closest grocery store was a neighborhood Safeway that only has one small refrigerated section of produce. This new store, while still pretty far, is a straight shot by bus and not only has fresh produce at low prices, but BULK!
Because we already had our carbs (pantry rice and pasta), most of our shop was produce and miscellaneous items. The interesting items – I think – are 1) the bulk, local honey, 2) the deeply discounted overripe bananas, and 3) the bulk fruit & chocolate.
These two trips should last us for about a week with everything else we had in the pantry.
- Zero waste in a food desert is pretty much an impossibility. And that’s OK. No one is going to be perfectly zero waste and you (and others!) need to have a lot of grace when faced with extra challenges. Put some emphasis on going zero waste and remember that small changes are important too!
- Recycling is not the best option, but it’s better than nothing. Choose glass or metal over plastic when possible. That being said, getting your recycling to a bin is a different story… (Unsurprisingly, if communities are food deserts they’re also under-served in just about every other area too. Go figure.)
- Bring sturdy cloth bags. Not only will this get you away from plastic bags, but it’ll make your trip much easier. If you’re walking far or riding public transport, don’t live in fear that your plastic bag will break. Grab a couple of sturdy tote bags for the road.
- Consider making some of the food you usually buy. Again, people living in food deserts and on a strict budget are also likely to be time poor. So while you may not have time to bake loaves of fresh bread, consider crock pot options instead of frozen TV dinners, prepackaged pasta/rice meals, etc.
What’s your grocery shopping situation like? Are you constrained by money or distance? Give us some tips on how to shop smarter when you don’t have access to a bulk section in the tips below!