Lansing’s farmers markets are like modern-day caravans. Independent vendors assemble under tents, forming a nutritional oasis of leafy greens, colorful vegetables and fresh fruit like strawberries with supple flesh, so unlike their rubbery cousins found in abundance at any local supermarket.

The caravan allusion hints at a topic of conversation not far from the lips of anyone concerned with healthy lifestyles: food deserts.

Despite how it may sound, food deserts are not simply expanses of populated regions without any food whatsoever. Instead, these are areas with little or no access to specific kinds of foods, namely those that sustain healthy diets. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that urban areas, especially those with higher concentrations of poverty, are more likely to fall within a food desert. The thinking goes that along with food deserts come obesity and a myriad of health problems associated with being overfed and undernourished.

On April 17, The New York Times published a story that brought the conventional wisdom surrounding food deserts into question. Two recently published studies, one sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, the other by the RAND Corp., complicated the link between access to fresh produce and rates of obesity.  

Philip Howard, an assistant professor in the Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies Department at Michigan State University, doesn’t even like the term “food desert.”

“Lots of areas are classified as food deserts on an overly simplistic basis,” Howard said. “It’s a lot more complex than access.”

Howard and colleagues are still analyzing data from a research study they published last year. In the study, the researchers extensively recorded the inventory of select items in local stores. On one end of the nutritional spectrum they tallied fresh produce, and on the other end, soft drinks. While the data is still being analyzed, Howard has a hunch about what it will show. 

“I suspect low-income areas will have more access to more varieties of soda,” he said. 

Take a stroll down any major thoroughfare in the area and stop into every gas station or convenience store you see (forget about fast food for now). These are the closest, most accessible food stores for large chunks of Lansing’s urban population. You’ll find coolers brimming with soda and sugary drinks, processed foods in boxes, candy, sweets and greasy rollers with processed meats tumbling up and down. It’s so ubiquitous that few of us give the overabundance of obesity-, diabetes-, hypertension-, and heart disease-causing foods a second thought.

Want fresh fruit? Maybe you’ll find a sad little lime next to the hard liquor. 

And where there is access to more wholesome food choices, as the studies in the Times story suggest, such options are typically interspersed with heavily marketed, cheaper-by-comparison, pre-packaged sundries. Shopping at a typical supermarket is like putting a chapel inside a brothel: Chances are, even the minister will prove to be human.  

Such nutritional swamps are why farmers markets are so important in urban areas.

In Lansing, three farmers markets serve tracts of the city that fall into what the Department of Agriculture defines as food deserts. Conversations with the managers of those markets reveal that not only is the availability of fresh, seasonal produce (i.e., nutritionally dense food) vital for these communities, it’s also hard work ensuring such access.

Peggy Vaughn-Payne is the executive director of the NorthWest Initiative, a nonprofit organization that manages the Westside Farmers Market, now located on Martin Luther King Boulevard between Oakland Avenue and Saginaw Street. 

Vaughn-Payne says the market didn’t spring to life on its own last year. Members and volunteers of the Initiative did neighborhood surveys, going door-to-door (which they still do) and collecting information at neighborhood events to understand just what kind of access people have to fresh food.

“We found in early canvassing that people didn’t have vehicles to always go to the supermarket,” Vaughn-Payne said. For people with children, who make ends meet by buying in quantity, a trip to the supermarket every couple of weeks in a borrowed car isn’t conducive to purchasing many perishable fruits and vegetables.

Hollie Hamel has been the market manager for the Allen Street Farmers Market, a project of the nonprofit Allen Neighborhood Center, since it opened in 2004. In early conversations with eastside residents, Hamel says her organization found patterns of food purchasing similar to what the Northwest Initiative would find a few years later: Proximity to fresh produce was a big issue.

“People were driving long distances to reduce the cost of food,” shopping on a large scale once or twice a month, Hamel said. “They were not buying perishables.”

While the decision to place the market at the corner of Kalamazoo and Allen streets was easy, building an actual farmers market that would come to thrive at that location took a bit more effort. Hamel says her first question was, “Farmers — do we know any?” In fact, the neighborhood center did have a relationship with one farmer who helped the group with networking. Establishing that there was a need for the operation was the first task.

“I had to reach out and pitch the concept of a farmers market in the middle of the city,” Hamel said. “On an act of faith they came on our word that we would find a market for their produce.”

The Allen Street market added two or three vendors a year until it maxed out its space. Now, at the peak of the season, 28 tents are set up every Wednesday afternoon, 16 of which house farmers selling fresh produce.

Heading south, nearly 60 percent of the population of Lansing lives below Interstate 496. Yet, unlike the north end of town, which now has four markets with produce during the growing season, south Lansing didn’t have a farmers market until 2009.

The market originally operated out of Benjamin F. Davis Park. While the space was lovely, finding a more accessible location became a priority. So this year the market has relocated to the parking lot of the Grace United Methodist Church, on the corner of Boston Boulevard and Mt. Hope Avenue.

“We needed to find a way to tap into the larger population of south Lansing,” said Janelle Jagmin, manager of the South Lansing Farmers Market. “That’s why we brought it here.”

The move has had an impact: Jagmin says this year, on average, the market has doubled both sales and attendance. Like other managers, Jagmin says getting the word out can be tough, especially to those who might make best use of the market’s offerings.

“One of the challenges we face right now is promoting our acceptance of the Bridge Card and the Double Up Food Bucks Program,” Jagmin said. The Double Up program (which all three seasonal markets in the city offer) allows shoppers to double the amount they spend, up to $20, on their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-eligible Bridge Card at farmers markets. 

While administrating such programs can be time-consuming, it’s worth it in the end to residents who might otherwise go without fresh food.

“There are very few grocery stores in this area,” Jagmin said, as she motioned toward the half-abandoned shopping center across the street that formerly held an L&L supermarket.

Farmers markets now speckle the greater Lansing area every growing season. Some, like the East Lansing Farmers Market, are less concerned with access and more focused on local producers: If you don’t grow or make it, don’t expect to sell it there. 

“Before farmers markets become popular, it might have been fine to wholesale,” said Michelle Carlson, manager of the East Lansing market. “Now that there are more markets and customers are more informed, people don’t want to buy wholesale.”