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Food Deserts to Food Forests

Stephanie Phelan

March 5, 2021

Food Deserts

In the U.S. alone, 1 in 4 households have faced food insecurity through the pandemic (according to a Northwestern Institute study). The issues of food and water security, as well as infrastructure and design, are becoming more and more prevalent as we face certain crises. Texas and Jackson, Mississippi are still struggling with their water crisis, amongst several other areas affected by February’s storm.

 Today, the phrase “food desert” is well-known because it describes a big public health issue. Many of these food desert communities have evolved given a number of different factors – but there are many similarities between them. U.S. Government defines a food desert as “a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” 

kids in neighborhoodkids in garden

To qualify as a food desert, 33% of the population (or a minimum of 500 people) in the tract must have “low access” to a supermarket or grocery store. Which means walking distance, because many of these residents don’t have the substantial income to afford a car. Which is why we are transitioning to cities of the future, “Green cities”, walkable cities and living off your own land. After all, having a car is a luxury!

Low-Income, Low-Access

Usually the closest food source, and the nutrients around us, is what influences our food choices and overall health. Down to the microbes in our soil, our gut – some say our “second brain” is affected by how we nourish it. Limited access to nutritious food causes concern for health issues and illnesses, with the greatest negative health effects happening to the elderly and children. In Texas, 14.3% of children live in food-insecure homes. Feeding Texas CEO Celia Cole mentions “Texas has the greatest number of people living in ‘low-income and low-access (LILA)’ areas — at 5 million — and ranks sixth in the nation for the highest percentage of its population living in LILA areas at 20 percent.”

Food Access Research Atlas

By looking at the numbers over the years, there’s variations in which states are affected by food insecurity or when they are considered food deserts. This USDA Tool seems to have the most up-to-date information. This is something many communities nationwide – and worldwide are facing. 

Transformation & Reformation

lush garden cottage


The first time I heard about permaculture and sustainable landscape design was at a free class bringing women together to share local information. It was a few weeks after taking a career aptitude test at my college and deciding to switch my major from Nursing to something called Sustainability Management. I was new to the whole idea. The permaculture talk I attended talked about Andrew Faust & The Center For BioRegional Living. How Andrew transformed an entire school in New York – in a low-income, low-access area. 


He used permaculture or “the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and water. All in a sustainable way.” He accelerated the process of soil regeneration by using something called “lasagna composting”. He planted in zones, rather than rows – so each plant could nourish each other. The plants he grew started to flourish, the community itself did shortly after. 

This is one of the many transformations that Andrew Faust has helped with over his 20+ years of expertise. And one of the many successful permaculture stories that experts have shared, and people have gravitated towards. 

On a local scale

Willie Nelson & His Permaculture Farm

The legendary country singer and his wife, Annie, have asked two Texas farmers, Tina and Orion Weldon, to transform their 500-acre property. Luck Ranch, which is home to over 70 rescued horses, is now going to be a regenerative farm. The Weldons have a 150-acre farm of their own, which they started in 2015 after leaving careers in academia. TerraPurezza is now the first model for industrial regenerative agriculture. They focus on using regenerative methods on their large organic farm in the hope that it will be a model for the future of large-scale agriculture. 

Local Permaculture Specialists

mommy and son

In Austin, TX the women-owned Cultivate Holistic Supply helps deliver the necessary tools you need to get started on a permaculture system. Local suppliers like Rare Seeds and Strictly Medicinal Seeds are a valuable resource for heirloom seeds. Connecting with local permaculture enthusiasts and organic farms – to gain knowledge (and maybe a few clippings!) is always an option too. The website for the Austin Permaculture Guild is brimming with valuable information. And there are many experts sharing their knowledge (and journey) on YouTube!

Pete Kanaris & Will Grant 

There are a variety of stories that lead an individual to permaculture and growing their own food. On GreenDreamsTV, you can learn practically all of the in depth knowledge you need to know about starting your permaculture journey. Pete Kanaris visits local farms like Jubilee Organics and “The Nomadic Farmer”, Jim Kovalski.  Will Grant was kind enough to introduce me to GreenDreamsTV, after he visited Pete to learn about 30+ varieties of plants to grow.  And I recently found out Pete  Kanaris and GreenDreams will be designing the permaculture landscape for a low-income apartment complex being build out of shipping containers. 

As a professional BMX racer, Will started his permaculture journey after a severe injury led him to questioning his food choices. Doctors told him at one point he may never be able walk again, and he wanted to find a way to nourish his body completely so he could recover fully. Today, he’s doing what he loves – in many ways. He’s able to perform in BMX racing. He’s found a new passion for growing his own food, teaching others about permaculture, wellness routines and breathwork. You can check out his YouTube channel here!

Food Forests

Austin Permaculture Design

This is what a permaculture design system looks like. I know, it can look very overwhelming! (especially when you are just starting to learn about permaculture). But the design itself works with nature. As many of our designs should. 

When I caught up with Will during a Zoom meeting, I explained my difficulties when trying to grow vegetables in hot summer heat. He mentioned the food forest in his backyard, he said things just grow, as they do in nature. They are working with each other and have found a way to benefit well from one another. There’s plenty of shade from large trees harvesting fruit, that smaller shrubs can stay cool in the direct sunlight. Decomposition from the leaves falling helps the soil stay rich. And irrigation works most efficiently as possible. 

This explains why many of us try to garden and eventually give up – given the time, and maintenance, weather conditions – whatever it may be, things are too difficult and maybe we’ll try again. So we revert back to grocery shopping – for the common Cavendish banana (Chiquita) rather than one of the other many varieties (thousands around the world!). Like the Seminole, Nam Wah, or Goldfinger varieties native to this area. 

We don’t fail as gardeners because of the weather or the lack of resources, we experience hurdles due to lack of knowledge and a proper system design. This YouTube video talks about creating Banana circles and microclimates on the south facing sides of the home, with Meyer lemons and lemongrass surrounding the trees. Permaculture is a whole systems approach, but it’s a design we all can utilize. With the uncertainty of tomorrow, it’s better to get involved. Take control of our bodies, and utilize our land, and be happy doing what we love. 

…You can do it too!

Looking forward to more discussions on sustainable design and ideas for the future?

TexasRealFood will be navigating the journey of ecovillages, alternative approaches to living, seed sharing and more permaculture designs. Stay tuned! And you can read about how to celebrate holidays by supporting local businesses here.