From Food Desert to Food Oasis, One Casserole at a Time

By John Bare, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
When a leader of a local Baptist church made a plea to teach young people the value of casseroles, I knew we were on to something.
It turns out the casserole, long a staple of church suppers, may be the ultimate example of a do-it-yourself family food experience. The casserole is about efficiency, relying on the know-how to organize multiple, seasonal ingredients into a dish that will stretch the family food dollar. Every casserole is a teaching moment, pulling the kids into the kitchen to learn alternatives to drive-through fast food. The casserole is about friends and family, as parents traditionally kept a couple in the freezer to give to a neighbor suffering a hardship. All roads to a new food system run through the casserole.
In our food initiative, led by the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation, we had initially used vocabulary from public health — lots of talk about food deserts and food insecurity, all supported by maps. Not a mention of casseroles.
The residents we aimed to serve, however, talked about food in different ways. And what we learned from residents helped us re-imagine our strategy. What emerged — the Georgia Food Oasis campaign — is now helping families across the state pursue their own ideas of how to eat, cook, and grow more fruits and vegetables.
Launched in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, and rural north Georgia, the Georgia Food Oasis campaign is bringing together community residents so they can raise the profile of existing local programs that help families eat, cook, and grow fruits and vegetables. Through this convening, residents also set priorities for local innovation. Thanks to this two-pronged approach, Georgia Food Oasis helps communities maximize the benefits of existing farmers’ markets, community gardens, and food pantries while at the same time rallying support for new programs that fill gaps.
By listening and responding to residents, here’s what we learned:
  • Changing the food profile of a neighborhood is doable. In two of the toughest neighborhoods in Atlanta, we’ve seen a pop-up retail market and a nonprofit neighborhood grocery change retail shopping behavior in one growing season. Leaders should take on the food issue with excitement, not fearful rhetoric. There are wins to be had through increased resident purchasing of fruits and vegetables.
  • Language matters. Residents want more choices in their neighborhood — more choices with schools, parks, and, yes, food. They want to cook up their own food future. They don’t want nags, finger-pointers, or lectures from the food police.
  • Food access is not a binary problem. That is, by technical definition, a neighborhood is either a “food desert” or not. But the presence or absence of a grocery store hardly tells the full story. We heard more about other barriers —transportation, price, quality of produce, and not being welcome in local stores. Turning a neighborhood into a food oasis is about addressing whatever is limiting choice. It’s often not just the presence or absence of a store.
  • Food access changes through relationships, not transactions. For well-intended foundations and nonprofits ready to launch work in new communities, it’s easy to slip up and focus on the latter instead of the former. It’s more important to start by developing authentic relationships with residents. Do that, and you’ll be surprised at how many barriers to change begin to melt away
  • When you hear about the need for more research in a neighborhood, be skeptical. Remember your research turns residents as human subjects. Start with the assumption that you have enough information — however imperfect — to support action, not research.
  • It’s critical to know enough about existing local programs. These programs can let residents know what they can do today to eat, cook, and grow fruits and vegetables. Residents are more engaged when, for the first time, they see all the services available. Hint: compile this directory through resident-led organizing, not research from outsiders.
In the end, Georgia Food Oasis understands that food is central to community building. By focusing on residents’ demand for fruits and vegetables, Food Oasis leads with irrefutable evidence that it is, in fact, worth the effort to remove barriers to access. From participation in cooking lessons to the rise in SNAP transactions at farmers markets to the pursuit of more community gardens, we’re overwhelmed — and overjoyed —  by the demand. If you don’t have evidence of demand, see above: focus on relationships. Residents want choices, and you’ve got to lift up the voices of residents to succeed.
John Bare is Vice President for Programs of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Founded in 1995, the Foundation has sought to support innovative solutions that promote positive change in people’s lives and enhance the communities in which they live. For more information, visit
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Healthy Food Access Portal.