ConnectOC Blog

Families Landlocked in Food Deserts

Posted by: Shelley Hoss on 6/16/2014

By Shelley Hoss

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below

Many low-income families lack basic access to healthy food options.

For many Orange County commuters, stopping to buy a bottle of water or a snack from a convenience store is a time-saver. Yet for too many families living in low-income communities, the neighborhood convenience or liquor store is the closest thing to a grocery store they’ll find. 

With limited access to transportation, they are forced to shop among the few aisles of pre-packaged foods, processed snacks and sugary beverages at whatever storefronts are within walking distance. It may seem affordable at first, but it’s no way to feed growing children who need access to nutritious foods daily. 

These families live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a “food desert.” 

Across the country and right here in Orange County, these communities do not have ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Think of the difference between the fare at fast-food chains and convenience stores compared with grocery stores and farmers markets. The resulting poor diet can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. 

The Orange County Department of Education estimates that nearly one-third of households in the county struggle with food insecurity, putting schools in the position of not only educating students, but also providing them essential nutrition in the one to two meals they serve on school days. 

“Hungry kids can’t concentrate,” explains Dareen Abdrabou, program coordinator for obesity education and prevention programs with the Orange County Department of Education. “Food is fuel. It fuels every part of the body, including the brain. That’s why schools give students breakfast, and we always tell students to eat before exams.” 

But what happens when students leave campus? Abdrabou points to community organizations, such as the Community Action Partnership, that complement the efforts of school districts to nourish hungry kids. 

“Parents in food deserts have to worry about putting food on the table. They often have to make the choice between paying the rent or buying groceries,” said Mark A. Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, a program of Community Action Partnership of Orange County. “So children in these communities often eat calorie-dense food that is more affordable but lacking proper nutrition.”

And that is something the Community Action Partnership is addressing with its Farm to Families program, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 10,000 school‐age children in low-income neighborhoods and schools in Orange County monthly. In addition to 5-pound fresh produce bags that go home with students, Community Action Partnership collaborates with the Orange County Department of Education to provide nutrition education and classroom activities that extend to the families and their households.  

In 2013, Community Action Partnership distributed nearly 2 million pounds of produce through the Farm to Family program. Lowry has a goal of distributing more than 3 million pounds this year, which would let more children choose strawberries, carrots or broccoli over pizza, hot dogs and candy. 

“The letters children send us is my favorite part of the program,” Lowry said. “They are so excited to be getting fresh fruits and vegetables. We even have classrooms of students making us ‘thank you’ posters.”

To learn more about the Community Action Partnership and other nonprofits fighting hunger in Orange County, visit


Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at

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