A table full of healthy foods including avocado, blue berries, and kiwi.
A 2013 study found that 1 in 4 Wichitans lives in a food desert. (Canva illustration)

For many in Wichita, Thanksgiving will be the one day a year they can count on getting enough to eat. Numerous charitable programs see to that. But the rest of the year? That might depend on whether they live in a food desert.

What is a food desert? Urban spaces that do not have easy access to fresh, nutritious food, usually defined as households living more than a mile away from a grocery store or supermarket.

Nine years ago it was discovered that 100,000 Wichitans live within 44 square miles of Wichita classified as a food desert. While there are pockets all over the city that qualify, the problem is most acute in southeast Wichita. 

The city of Wichita and Sedgwick County have been studying the problem since. In January, both adopted a master plan to address problems within the community’s food system. Central to this plan is engaging local residents from across the city and county to participate in its implementation. Government officials are currently recruiting members for a Food and Farm Council to guide the plan.

Most of the council will be made up of experts in food access and health, but anyone with interest in helping solve the problem may apply. 

A dozen vacancies to apply for

The board calls for 14 members – one to be appointed by each of six city council members and each of five county commission members, plus one to be appointed by the Wichita mayor and two at-large members appointed by the county commission. So far, only City Council Districts 1 and 6 have appointed members, but residents of those districts may still apply to be appointed by other officials. 

To apply for the vacant positions, fill out the form on the city’s website. 

The broad representation is due to the city and county government committing in the plan to working with underserved and marginalized residents to ensure representation.

Donna Pearson McClish was the first person appointed to the board. She is founder and CEO of Common Ground Mobile Market and Mobile Food hub. She joined the board “to begin to get food to the people that need it.”

Why are food deserts a problem?

Food deserts foster food inequality. In the original 2013 study, the Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita found that lower-income families in Wichita are more likely to pay higher prices for fresher foods. This trend continued in later updates to the study.

How much basic fruits and vegetables cost based on the type of store selling them. (Graphic is from a 2013 community food assessment from the Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita.)

The 2013 study survey found that 70 percent of respondents were most concerned about access to healthy food. The survey also asked residents for the top reasons why they did not purchase the kinds of food they wished to eat. Top reasons given were: not enough time for shopping or cooking, not enough money for food, and lack of availability of the kinds of food they wanted in nearby stores or pantries. 

The second highest concern recorded by the survey was access to locally sourced foods.  According to the food master plan, Sedgwick County only produces less than 1 percent each of chicken, eggs, vegetables and fruit consumed here. 

The plan states, “Growing more of the food we consume here can support farmers wanting to diversify their operations, as well as entrepreneurs who want to start businesses to meet the growing demand for local food.” 

The idea is that if more local producers exist and can sustain themselves in Sedgwick County, more food will be available in the community. “We help through our local farmers markets and supporting our local producers to make food here,” McClish said.  

What are the top priorities?

Before the master plan was passed, a steering committee was created to help write it. They attended community meetings, conducted the survey and held roundtable discussions to determine what the goals for the Food and Farm Council should be. 

They narrowed it down to eight goals: 

1. Increase local food production
2. Protect natural resources
3. Increase access to healthy food
4. Reduce food waste
5. Foster social equity
6. Grow our regional economy
7. Build upon our community’s food culture
8. Support community health and wellness

To learn more, you can visit the city’s website, which contains links to numerous documents detailing the local food desert problem and proposed solutions. To learn more about joining government boards in Wichita, read our story here

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.