Zero waste in a food desert: how I shopped

I vividly remember one of the most miserable experiences of my first few months in Indy. Neither my husband nor I had snagged a job yet, and we were coming to the end of our savings. We lived close to downtown but the nearest grocery store was 1.2 miles away. We needed food but really couldn’t spare money for an Uber (nor was there a direct bus route).

So my husband and I walked to and from the store, the cold November wind whipping past us. On the way back we were burdened by bags heavier than we could really carry, but we couldn’t imagine doing this again before it was absolutely necessary.

What if we were not two healthy, young, able-bodied adults? What if we couldn’t afford the arguably high prices of a downtown Kroger? What if we both hadn’t gotten job offers soon after that allowed us to take an Uber and eventually buy a car?

What if we didn’t have the privilege and access to leave this situation if we really needed to?

What is a food desert?

Broadly, food deserts are areas where access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.

The USDA has a great resource to show this information and they say this:

The Food Access Research Atlas maps food access indicators for census tracts using ½-mile and 1-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for urban areas, 10-mile and 20-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for rural areas, and vehicle availability for all tracts.

We lived in a food desert when we first came to Indianapolis. The vacant building in the picture above was actually what used to be a grocery store across the street from our second apartment in Indianapolis. Although the most recent records according to the USDA map show that I didn’t live in a food desert, I can’t think of a grocery store within two miles of that apartment – definitely not a half-mile.

I believe that data probably references that Double 8 Supermarket not too far from my apartment; sadly, the low-cost chain closed down in mid-2015. Now, the closest grocery store is a Safeway 2.1 miles away which only has one small section of barely-fresh produce. This puts me well outside of the 1 mile definition of a food desert. Additionally, because a majority of the residents in my area do not have access to a car, it becomes a high-risk neighborhood.

Spoiler alert: it was also a majority Black neighborhood. Environmental and structural racism all play a significant part in explaining how a near-downtown neighborhood got this way. This article from the ACLU is a great starting point. This article to the UN frames lack of food access as a clear human rights violation.

This is the reality of living in an urban area. We moved to both of these locations because of finances; they were close to our jobs, but still cheap. Because my husband and I both worked in low-income communities and were paid very little, it necessitated living close to our jobs – but without access to food.

Luckily, I ended up having a steady job, the flexibility of time to get where I needed to go in order to shop well and on-budget, and eventually even a car. Also, the privilege of getting out of the area if we really needed to for some reason. Many people – particularly BIPOC or those living in poverty – do not have those options. And that’s where the system is failing them.

‘Zero waste’ in a food desert

Here’s the thing: if you have a small income without reliable access to transportation or nearby grocery shopping options, getting anywhere near truly zero waste is absolutely not an option. That is not to say that reducing waste or engaging in environmental activism is impossible, it’s just that it may look different from people with greater privilege and access.

My initial experiences with zero waste definitely colored how I approached the philosophy. When I first started I had no illusion that I had the ability to be perfect and I hadn’t yet fell into the online world of zero waste, so I was able to explore eco-activism without external pressure.

Which was good because man, I did a terrible job for a while.

What did zero waste shopping look like for us?

For two adults, our usual food budget was around $35-40/week. We were able to keep it low because I was required to eat with the kids at work for breakfast and lunch every day. My husband was also able to pick up an extra lunch at his work if there were leftovers.

First things first, let’s talk about what we already had rolling around our pantry/fridge. It’s not much, as we got used to doing smaller, more frequent trips to the store while living in Russia and never really moved past that. (Much easier when you’re trying to buy lots of fresh food, anyway.)

  • coffee
  • 1/2 box pasta
  • 1 cup purple rice
  • large container of oats
  • various spices
  • 2 cans of black beans
  • 3 cans of vegetables
  • butter

Part 1: a Dollar Tree trip


Total price: $7.50

Distance from my house: 15 minute walk

Unsurprisingly, shopping zero waste at Dollar Tree was really, really hard. (If you don’t know, Dollar Tree is a store where everything costs $1.) There’s a ton of cheap, plastic crap and lots of pre-packaged food with little or no nutritional benefit. Some of it’s OK, but it wouldn’t be my first choice if it weren’t so cheap.

I went to the Dollar Tree for canned goods, eggs, and the small carton of milk we use for coffee in the morning.

I wouldn’t normally get the eggs, but when I’m strapped for cash they’re a good, filling source of protein. I knew they’d be too expensive at the other store and I tried to use the packaging for buying eggs at the farmers market when they show up.

Part 2: a Fresh Thyme visit


Total price: $25.70

Distance from my apartment: 3.7 miles, 27 minutes by bus

A new Fresh Thyme opened up in Broad Ripple which was very exciting! Previously, the closest grocery store was a neighborhood Safeway that only has one small refrigerated section of very expensive produce. This new store, while still pretty far, was a straight shot by bus and not only had fresh produce at low prices, but BULK!

Because we already had our carbs (pantry rice and pasta), most of our shop was produce and miscellaneous items. The interesting items – I think – are 1) the bulk, local honey, 2) the deeply discounted overripe bananas, and 3) the bulk fruit & chocolate.

These two trips should last us for about a week with everything else we had in the pantry.

General takeaways

  • Food deserts disproportionately affect communities with POC and high poverty rates. Due to systemic policy and regulations, POC are affected far more by environmental issues that white people. That’s what we call environmental racism, folks. It’s why white communities rarely see landfills, factories, or other toxic sites but POC often do (or if it’s a mainly white area, the high-poverty areas). 
  • Zero waste in a food desert is pretty much an impossibility. And that’s OK. No one is going to be perfectly zero waste, particularly when faced with extra barriers. Put emphasis on going zero waste and remember that small changes are important too. Plus, who’s to say what zero waste looks like? Your choices are your own and no one should make you feel otherwise.
  • Recycling is not the best option, but it’s better than nothing. Choose glass or metal over plastic when possible. That being said, getting your recycling to a bin is a different story… (Unsurprisingly, if communities are food deserts they’re also under-served in just about every other area too. Go figure.)
  • Bring sturdy cloth bags when shopping. Not only will this get you away from plastic bags, but it’ll make your trip much easier. If you’re walking far or riding public transport, don’t live in fear that your plastic bag will break. Grab a couple of sturdy tote bags for the road.
  • Consider making some of the food you usually buy. Again, people living in food deserts and on a strict budget are also likely to be time poor. So while you may not have time to bake loaves of fresh bread, consider crock pot options instead of frozen TV dinners, prepackaged pasta/rice meals, etc.
Zero waste in a food desert: how I shopped - Green Indy Blog