Ital Vital Living's store front is painted with tropical fruits and a smiling Black woman wearing a yellow dress and headwrap. A part of 24th Street can be seen at the right corner.
After embarking on her own health journey, Imani Murray opened Ital Vital Living, a juice and smoothie shop in North Omaha. Murray said she want to offer healthy vegan options close to her community. Photo by Bousaina Ibrahim/NNS

In North Omaha, access to affordable and healthy foods has historically been a challenge. That is why several North Omaha organizations and businesses say they are working to combat the community’s food desert, which continues to pose serious health implications for residents. 

But more needs to be done, medical experts say. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area without ready access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food. In urban areas, living more than one mile away from the nearest grocery store is another defining characteristic of food deserts in the U.S. 

Medical experts at the North Omaha Area Health clinic say nutritious food can offer benefits to a community; it can bring people together, nourish them and sustain them. But they said finding affordable fresh produce in North Omaha can be a challenge and is a serious concern.

Consider just one of the dire consequences: African-Americans in Douglas County die of cardiovascular disease at an alarmingly higher rate than white residents. 

North Omaha residents have lived in a food desert for at least 40 years, according to Adam Fletcher Sasse, a former Nebraska resident who compiled a history of North Omaha and published his research this year on his website.

According to a study by the United Way of the Midlands, there are higher rates of food insecurity within the urban core of North Omaha in the Omaha- Council Bluffs metro area. The study recognizes the low quantity and variety of fresh food within the community.

The detrimental impact of this disparity is clear, medical experts say. 

In Douglas County, African-Americans 35 and older die of cardiovascular disease at a per capita rate of 546.4 per 100,000 while their white counterparts die of the same disease at a rate of 369.1 per 100,000, according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2020 Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke. 

“These findings are disheartening,” said Linda Smith, director of public health at the North Omaha Area Health clinic.

And the health implications are many, she said.

 “We know that living in food desert areas increases one’s risk of obesity,” she said. “This increased risk of obesity increases one’s risk of chronic illnesses, like high blood pressure and diabetes. Although the individual may desire to eat healthier, the food desert factor may impede their effort to do so.”

Smith has witnessed the impact of North Omaha’s food desert many times during her five years with the clinic, which provides free and low-cost health screenings, evaluations, education and community outreach for the diverse population living in Omaha.

“It’s not uncommon for me to go conduct a community health screening and find a participant with dangerously elevated blood pressure or blood sugar levels, warranting emergency medical attention,” said Smith, who has been a registered nurse for 30 years and earned a doctorate in public health. 

In addition to offering health screenings at local churches, grocery stores and with entities such as the Salvation Army, the clinic also provides community resources, including lists of nearby food pantries and relevant family resources in support of community health and social needs. 

Some participants say they are frustrated by having to purchase foods from the nearest store, such as surrounding convenience stores, knowing that food items are often more expensive, Smith said.

But food deserts pose additional risks for residents, Smith said. 

“A food desert situation is a public health concern that extends beyond the medical and physical aspects of health, and can potentially impact one’s mental health as well,” she said. 

A 2021 study by three University of Arkansas researchers confirmed that. Food insecurities were associated with mental conditions such as anxiety and depression, among 2,714 low-income respondents in the study published in BMC Public Health.

How organizations are stepping up

Smith said she wants to see the community come together to address the public health concern of the lack of affordable and accessible foods in North Omaha.

“For generations and generations, it has always taken a village”, she said.

North Omaha’s food desert ultimately creates a burden and limitation on individuals and the collective health, she said. But it’s every North Omahan’s problem, she said, and the solution must be a collective effort that includes all facets of the community, including the Omaha Care Council, churches, colleges, merchants and community members. 

“What does this community feel are their major barriers regarding food accessibility?” she asked.   

The organization runs a community harvest program, where fresh produce sourced from local farmers is packaged weekly to give to Omaha residents. The program also provides healthy meals created from the fruits and vegetables they receive from local farms. The produce boxes and meals are free for residents with lower incomes, as well as cancer patients and survivors. 

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No More Empty Pots staff member stands at their booth table, listening to a community member. The table includes a presentation of different resources the organization offers. Photo courtesy of No More Empty Pots.

The community harvest program directly ties in with the organization’s mission of self-sustainability, said Natavia Jones, the non-profit’s Emerging Leaders Fellow. 

“To be able to receive their produce box from No More Empty Pots each week is sustaining families within itself,” she said. 

But not enough people know about the program — and Jones said she wants to spread the word to help grow it. As the program’s subscribers increase, the non-profit is able to request more funding to support the growth. Jones said the program will have to increase the number of volunteers who help support its multiple initiatives. 

Jones said bringing the community together will increase their ability to spread the wealth. 

“If there’s any community event where they’re having resource tables for the community, then we’re always at those events and networking,” Jones said. 

Food brings together people from different cultures, and it could provide the collaboration that is necessary to combat food insecurity, she said.

“Putting food at the center of things will bring the community more together,” Jones said. “And once the community comes together, then we’re able to get resources and share how we got those resources.” 

Jones keenly understands North Omaha’s food problems. She grew up in North Omaha and was raised in a low-income household, where the priority was getting food that would last and not produce that could get old fast. And throughout her life, there was no central grocery store in the North Omaha area. 

Now, Jones finds it important that younger kids know that they deserve healthy foods and healthy living. 

“It’s important to know at a young age that you should have access to those things, no matter your income level or education level that’s in your household,” Jones said. 

“Healthy food and healthy access is something that should be accessible to everyone.” 

That concept is a priority for business owner Imani Murray, who opened Ital Vital Living, which is dedicated to providing healthy options to residents in the North Omaha area. Ital Vital Living focuses on serving vegan and plant-based juices and smoothies in the heart of North Omaha.  

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Ital Vital Living is located on North 24th Street, the heart of North Omaha. Murray said she want to grow the shop within the community’s neighborhood. Photo by Bousaina Ibrahim/NNS

And the community seems to appreciate her 24th Street shop, she said. 

“There are so many people who come to Ital and say, ‘We needed this.’ The need was there,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to go all the way to Whole Foods to have healthy organic food. It’s something that I want for myself, my family, and the Black community here.”As a young Black entrepreneur, Murray said staying in North Omaha is important to her and the growth of her business. Ital Vital Living has been open since 2019, when Murray was inspired to recreate a healthy lifestyle for herself and others. 

But she said what’s lacking in her neighborhood is the funding to support other for-profit businesses with the same healthy intentions. Murray shared that other businesses will move to other neighborhoods, such as the Blackstone and Askarben, because they have more financial support to help the stores thrive. However, Murray says this forces North Omaha residents to travel to support these healthy options. 

North Omaha also is missing other necessities for healthy living, such as walking trails and well-equipped parks, to attract individuals to walk, work out and enjoy nature.  Murray said she would like to see more parks and projects that beautify the neighborhood. 

“Having something to do in your own community makes people happy,” she said. 

Healing North Omaha through food 

Smith believes that collaborative community-wide efforts are key to ultimately reducing adverse health outcomes often associated with food deserts. She said it is imperative that these accessibility issues are addressed to optimize health in the Omaha community. She sees it as an opportunity to empower a community. 

“The healing is not just from a physical aspect, but healing from the day-to-day struggles of poverty, oppression and limited resources,” she said. 

And she said it is important to involve community members in every aspect of community programs targeting food desert concerns. Smith said entities like NOAH clinic will continue to serve as a beacon of light for individuals in the community who are facing daily challenges. 

“Because everyone deserves optimal health.”

Bousaina Ibrahim is a senior journalism student with minors in English and African Studies. Bousaina is dedicated to covering diverse communities and historical documentation. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends and making jewelry.