Unhealthy and Hungry in America: Urban Food Deserts

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the country to a term many were unfamiliar with: food deserts. At the time, 23.5 million Americans lived in low-income, urban areas where fresh food was hard to come by. The USDA defines food deserts as areas where at least 500 people (or at least 33%) of the population lives further than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. The likelihood of living in a food desert is linked to class and race, with lower-income, African-American, and Latino areas enjoying less access to fresh produce.

Causes of food deserts

What triggers the designation of a food desert? There are certain criteria. A lack of reliable transportation combined with the location of stores could be considered the first. Grocery stores are often built in the suburbs to serve that community, so to get there, a city-dweller must either own a car or take a bus, which can take all day. Instead of taking the time to travel to a store with fresh produce, the city-dweller resorts to gas stations, convenience stores, or fast food.

Another catalyst for food deserts is the price of the products that are available and income of the area’s population. A person may be able to get to a store, but the cost of certain items and their alternatives determines what the customer buys and if they even visit the store. If everything is too expensive, why bother? Studies have shown that census tracts with lower incomes are more likely to meet the criteria for a food desert. A 2012 study from the USDA also linked populations with lower levels of education to food deserts.

Another key factor appears to be race. Research has suggested that black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets compared to white ones, and the availability of food like fresh fruits and vegetables is more limited. This information overlaps with income, since poorer areas are often made up more heavily of minorities, but those who study food availability are careful to not yoke the two together singularly.

Consequences 

Less access to fresh food means less access to healthy food. Having a lower income also means having to resort to cheap, packaged foods which aren’t nutritious and are often packed with harmful chemicals. Studies indicate that the populations with limited access to fresh food have higher rates of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart problems, cancer, and more.

How to (not) reduce food deserts

For years, people assumed the solution to food deserts was building more grocery stores. However, studies tell a different story. One from the University of Chicago revealed that while grocery stores increased in Chicago, low-income neighborhoods were not affected. In 2017, a report from economists from the University of Chicago, Stanford, and New York University showed that even when given access to more grocery stores, the difference between affluent and poorer populations’ nutrition only shifted by 9%. Why?

That same 2017 study examined a number of food-desert factors and found that income, education, and knowledge about nutrition all impacted health, so building more grocery stores didn’t actually change how people ate. When given more fresh food options, lower-income populations still bought the same fo

This opens up the discussion on the term “food desert” and its limited scope. Many experts don’t like the term because it implies that these areas just pop up and that multiple factors like race, income, and education don’t matter. The term also implies that simply building grocery stores would eliminate a food desert, like building a well in an actual desert would create an oasis. The studies show people do not become healthier or change their shopping when more stores appear. There needs to be change in other areas.

Solutions that work

Building more stores is only the beginning, not the end, of reducing food deserts. To improve a community’s health, other actions need to be taken. Activists put forth suggestions like stocking existing convenience stores with healthier food, since these are often still the most convenient places for lots of people. Grocery stores could also improve their promotion of healthier food, while governments could provide economic initiatives for stores to stock more nutritious food and less of the packaged junk many people are drawn to.

Education about nutrition is just as important as access, so many orgs and activists are working towards starting programs that teach people about healthy food and cooking. At The Growhaus, a nonprofit “indoor farm” in Denver, Colorado, grows and sells fresh produce at deep discounts. In a partnership with the Denver Food Rescue, the Growhaus also has a “corner store program” where visitors are introduced to various fruits and vegetables, given samples, and taught about how to prepare them. The organization also teaches the community about growing its own food in an urban environment. These types of intivitiates take the proverb “teach a man to fish” to heart and have the potential to change a community in the long-term.

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