04/23/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

No Simple Answers for a Complex Problem

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Washington, D.C., a city with a reputation for 'pork,' struggles with serious problems of healthy food access. D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that has spent two decades fighting hunger and poverty in our nation's capital, knows the scale of these challenges all too well. But by working with local farmers, we've developed landmark programs that serve healthy school meals to thousands of D.C. children every day and distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to corner stores that would not otherwise sell them for reasons of cost and capacity. And we were honored when our work inspired the New York Times to call us "a nonprofit that gives new meaning to free enterprise."

Consider my surprise, to read in a recent New York Times article the suggestion that the crisis of 'food deserts' may not be a serious issue after all. Citing two recent scholarly studies, the Times cast doubt on the relationship between the availability of fresh food in a given neighborhood and the social, economic, and health outcomes that prevail in such communities. But the piece omitted key points in both articles that underscored the complexity -- and reality -- of this issue. Dr. Helen Lee, for example, concedes that her "study is national in its lens and may mask city or area specific patterns of food access by community markers of disadvantage or segregation." D.C. Central Kitchen's experience serving the District of Columbia clearly demonstrates a compelling set of neighborhood needs -- and our city is not alone in the challenge it faces in bringing healthy options to low-income communities.

According to a 2010 study by DC Hunger Solutions and Social Compact, 23 percent of the District's population lives in Wards 7 and 8, where 35 percent of residents live in poverty and 41 percent are obese.

Tellingly, this same area is home to only 16 percent of the City's food retailers. The same study points out that District-wide, there is one full-service grocery store for every 14,000 residents; in Ward 8, there is one such store for every 23,000 people. But while the evidence of food inequality in our nation's capital is pervasive, those of us working to solve this problem are well aware that a few new grocery stores or farmer's markets will not eliminate disparities in food access or good health. This awareness, which permeates the work of D.C. Central Kitchen and our many dedicated partners, is overlooked by the Times article in question.

Although D.C. Central Kitchen is often seen as a hunger relief organization, we have always known that food alone will never end hunger. While there is more than enough food in our country to feed everyone, simply handing out more of it will not solve this multi-faceted issue. Likewise, individual programs like our effort to bring fresh, healthy food to corner stores will not solve our national obesity epidemic. But even if this particular program is not a silver bullet, does that mean it has no place in our arsenal of creative, community-based solutions?"

Food access is a complicated issue. It involves distribution, storage, education, employment, economics, cultural norms, and policies designed and implemented at local, state, and federal levels. While this web is as vexing as it is complex, it will not become less troublesome, tragic, or costly if we do nothing. Turning our backs on individual parts of a larger solution simply because they do not offer a quick, comprehensive cure is to admit defeat before we even begin.