The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents have limited access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”
The list of food deserts in the United States is long, and on that list is South Side Bethlehem.
Lehigh political science professor Karen Beck Pooley suggests Bethlehem may be better described as a “food swamp,” rather than a food desert. She said a food desert is a neighborhood “where truly you cannot find calories.”
Pooley said food swamps have a significant amount of food available, but it is the quality and nutrition of the food that is limited.
“You wouldn’t go hungry,” she said. “But the food that is there is not necessarily healthy food.”
Luke Rider, a senior at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, has noticed this as well. He is specifically concerned with the lack of local, affordable farmers’ markets in Bethlehem.
“It seems as though the only option for food for people, especially in the lower class, is these fast food chains and dine-in places,” Rider said.
Rider suggested farmers’ markets would provide the Bethlehem community with something that is currently lacking: more sustainable food at their fingertips.
CTown Supermarket and Ahart’s Market are smaller grocers located on the South Side, but community members have to travel further to access supermarkets with a larger selection of quality goods.
“Getting groceries nearby, especially ones that will be able to sustain your family and help their health is becoming, not impossible, but I feel like it needs to become easier to… anyone who might struggle with food, and affordability of food, and the quality of food,” Rider said.
Mike Rogers lives with his son and extended family in South Bethlehem. He buys groceries at Walmart or Price Right, neither of which are on the Southside. Rogers said it doesn’t matter much to him personally, but if these stores were closer it would be easier and take less time to grocery shop for his family.
Pooley said Bethlehem’s food insecurity has historic roots in how investments were made in different neighborhoods in the 1930s. Redlining was used to suggest which neighborhoods were good for investment and which were not.
She said places with older infrastructure, dense populations, or where shops and houses were packed together would often be designated as areas bad for investment.
“It also had to do, at the time, with places that were more diverse or diverse at all, which would typically be redlined or considered bad bets for investment,” Pooley said.
She said people could lawfully discriminate against who they sold or rented houses to until the 1960s, so there was systemic disinvestment in certain neighborhoods.
The effects of decades of systemic racism remain apparent in Bethlehem’s food instability today.
“Almost a hundred years after those maps were made, white residents are way more likely to live closer to a grocery store, way more likely to have access to healthy foods than minority residents of almost any city,” Pooley said.
Lower access to nutritious food can have adverse effects on people’s health and increase risks of health conditions like diabetes or obesity. Pooley said communities like Bethlehem have been hit harder because of this trend.
COVID-19 has also affected the supply of goods for smaller grocers in Bethlehem.
Franklin Rodriguez, manager at CTown, said it has been more difficult to sustain the products he sells. As one of the only grocers on the Southside, CTown has a large community to provide for, and when COVID-19 hit, certain products were harder to stock
“It is challenging, but we find a way to maintain,” Rodriguez said.
Pooley suggested new funding could be made available to open larger grocers, retailers that already exist like corner stores or gas stations could work to carry healthier options and that access to online grocery shopping should be guaranteed for all.
Rider suggested people could take part in opportunities for community service in order to tackle this problem and help set up more farmers’ markets in Bethlehem as well.
“I know it would take a little bit of time, but we have all the time in the world to help with an issue this large,” Rider said.