How to survive in a food desert

A London co-op helps the poor to eat better

Saturday morning on Winsor Park estate - the poorest estate in Newham, east London. This is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, where more than half the residents are unemployed. In a small room in the community centre, fruit and vegetables are on sale, through a food co-op organised by the residents. The co-op has been running since December, and the produce is 30 per cent cheaper than in Asda over the road.

On Winsor Park, the different ethnic groups tend to keep to themselves, and the estate has a history of racist attacks and interracial problems. But the co-op, according to its chairman, Vandyke Wilson, has brought harmony.

The co-op gets government funding, because Labour wants to reduce ill health in deprived neighbourhoods: in east London, the mortality rate is 38 per cent above the national average, and the rate of cardiovascular disease is one of the highest in the country. But the co-op's continued success depends on the dedication of volunteers. In this case, the driving force is Eric Samuel, an ordained minister who, for six days a week, voluntarily runs four co-ops for the charity Aston Mansfield.

Samuel himself lives on a Newham estate that is so isolated it is classified as a food desert. The term was coined in the mid-1990s by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, to describe deprived neighbourhoods left stranded by the disappearance of local shops that have been replaced by inaccessible supermarkets, which only car- owners find easy to reach. Research published by the Rowntree Foundation last year estimates that four million people in the UK are not getting enough to eat - unable to afford fresh fruit and vegetables or manage two meals a day.

"Co-ops reach around 400,000 people and this is a problem that's ten times bigger, so they are not an adequate response," says Michael Nelson, the deputy director of the family budget unit at King's College London. "They are a response to a lack of government policy."

Co-ops are on the increase. One of their benefits is that they cater for diverse ethnic needs, which the supermarkets tend to ignore. "Supermarkets do sell yams," says Samuel, "but they're token - they're not the type people want to eat."

But not everyone wants to shop at a community co-op - even if it is cheaper and fresher. Carol Parker, a health worker in the Merseyside health action zone, says that some young mothers feel there is a stigma. "They think it's a second-class choice. It makes them feel different from the rest of the population. They want to go to Sainsbury's." She is particularly concerned about how to encourage families to eat healthier diets when they are surviving on low incomes. "When an 80p bag of chips feeds three children, how can you persuade people to spend that on fruit and veg? It's a catch-22."

Along with other researchers on poverty and nutrition, Nelson wants to see access to food regarded as a human right. One of the most trenchant writers on food and poverty, Suzi Leather, who is now deputy chair of the Food Standards Agency, argues that it should be no more acceptable for shops to disappear from a neighbourhood than for the water company to turn off the water supply.

Campaigners have long been calling for the government to develop a comprehensive food policy. Because of the foot-and-mouth crisis, local sustainable food production, previously a marginal issue, is now at the centre of debate. Lang argues that foot-and-mouth and food poverty are both consequences of the failure to develop an integrated food policy.

Alan Simpson, one of several MPs who are about to launch a campaign against food poverty (he was behind the fuel poverty campaign that led to the Warm Homes Act last autumn), is scathing about our attitude towards food. "We're saddled with a food culture which is impoverishing. We need to reclaim a different theology on food and health," he says. "It's not utopian. In Europe, the poor are not necessarily poor in food. In Italy, France and Greece, there's a stronger local food culture." One of the ideas proposed in the campaign is for supermarkets to pay rates on their car parks, but to get a 50 per cent rebate if they buy produce within 50 miles of the store. Simpson and the other MPs also want a duty to be imposed on every local council to develop a food poverty strategy, which might make it easier for co-ops, among other initiatives, to survive.

Both Simpson and Lang think that a food revolution has started, but both predict that it will be another 15 or 20 years before we really see results.