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Researchers and politicians sometimes refer to areas where it’s hard to find fresh food as food deserts.

“Neighborhoods where either because of a lack of supermarkets or because of the poor quality of the produce in the grocery stores, if you wanted to eat a salad, or vegetables, or fruit, you’d have a hard time doing so,” says Andrew Rundle, a researcher at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Andrew and fellow researchers noticed that there were many studies and policies aimed at solving this problem of food deserts. But it seemed like they were missing key information to solving it.

“It’s odd, if you read the entire literature on this topic, there are almost no studies where people just sat down with immigrant families and asked them what they want or what they believe is healthy food.” says Rundle.

One thing they learned when they actually did sit these women down is that they didn’t talk about healthy food in terms of calories or fat.

“They talked about food in terms of it being close to the source. kind of like farm to table food is what they valued and so farmer’s markets were exactly the kinds of places they would like to buy food from,” says Rundle.

A lot of what the women were saying seems in line with popular “foodie” trends now: local food and organic produce with no pesticides.

“It is this sort of intriguing idea that wealthier U.S. born families are going to places like Whole Foods to buy farm to table vegetables and greens and locally sourced meats that are labeled with the farm that they came from when this idea is also a very traditional idea of going to your local market that was supplied by your local farms.”

The women interviewed didn’t just prefer fresh produce – they also preferred fresh meat.

“I was surprised by how often they referred to buying meat at slaughterhouses in New York City. I never really understood that there are actually lots of small slaughterhouses in New York City where you can get fresh chickens, goat and rabbit.”

The New York Daily News states that there’s roughly 80 slaughterhouses in New York City. They’re also known as Viveros – a much gentler term.

Farmer’s Markets and Viveros are clearly popular with immigrants but the government hasn’t seemed to catch on.

New York City recently released a program called FRESH that aims to bring more supermarkets to these supposed food deserts.

“What our study suggests is that while we agree having supermarkets is probably a good thing it probably not the only solution to improving the food environment. particularly for immigrant families who are used to shopping at small markets and small slaughterhouses.

So there isn’t just one way out of a food desert. trying alternative or new paths might be fruitful.

Screen shot 2014-11-28 at 6.50.03 AMDr. Andrew Rundle is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the Mailman School of Public Health.  His research focuses on the determinants of sedentary lifestyles and obesity and the health related consequences of these conditions.

Dr. Rundle directs the Built Environment and Health Research Group (beh.columbia.edu), a trans-disciplinary team of researchers studying how neighborhood built and social environments influence diet, physical activity and, in turn, obesity risk.  His work on neighborhood level effects has been used as part of the scientific rationale for the New York City ‘Active Design Guidelines’ jointly published by the Departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation and City Planning, and for the Mayor’s Food Policy Task Force’s ‘Food Retail Expansion to Support Health’ (FRESH) initiative.  He and his collaborators have also been studying how neighborhood characteristics influence childhood neuro-development, childhood asthma risk, and depression and disability among the elderly.  He is currently developing projects to study how neighborhood-level factors impact the gut microbiome and the distribution of anti-biotic resistance genes in bacteria.