Food Deserts: Where Nutrition Meets Inequality

What is a food desert?

The 2008 Farm Bill defines a food desert as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.”

According to the USDA, to qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than ten miles).

What factors contribute to low food accessibility?

A neighborhood may qualify as a food desert for a number of reasons, including having:

—A low number of grocery stores in comparison to the number of residents it serves

—A great distance between grocery stores

—A lack of vehicular or public transport available to facilitate travel to grocery stores

—Low-income residents who cannot afford many food options

So, what do people in food deserts eat?

Americans who live in food deserts have limited nutritional options. Of the 25.3 million Americans living in low-income areas over a mile from a supermarket, 2.3 million do not own or have reliable access to vehicles. This means that in areas where supermarkets and grocery stores are in low supply, residents are often limited to the small delis, bodegas, and fast food restaurants that are more easily accessible. These businesses offer more processed, unhealthy foods, as well as less fresh produce and fewer options overall.

Who does this problem affect?

The food desert situation in the United States disproportionately affects minority groups. Compared to the white population, these demographic groups typically have less access to grocery stores and thus restricted opportunities to find nutritious food. For example, while 31% percent of White Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, only 8% of Black Americans do.

But the effects of food deserts are not limited to the issues of hunger and nutrition. As mentioned, food deserts often lie in areas with communities of marginalized and lower-income Americans, where residents often work multiple jobs with unpredictable shifts to make ends meet. When individuals struggle to balance work with rent and food expenses, the cycle of poverty and hunger continues and reinforces the marginalization of these group.

How does living in a food desert impact health?

Unsurprisingly, living in a food desert has been linked to worse diet. Studies show that better access to a supermarket is linked to lower levels of obesity, while greater access to a convenience store is associated with higher risk of obesity.

Diet-related diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes can have long-lasting and serious health effects. In this way, lack of food accessibility doesn’t just have immediate consequences. It disproportionately impacts low-income and communities of color with the burden of these health risks over the long-term and across multiple generations.

What initiatives are in place to combat this issue?

In recent years, community leaders, grassroots activists, and government officials have made efforts to advocate for those impacted by low food accessibility.

As part of her “Let’s Move” campaign, former First Lady Michelle Obama established the Healthy Food Finance Initiative, a multi-million dollar project aimed at eliminating food deserts by 2017. In her 2010 speech at a Philadelphia elementary school, she said, “we know this is ambitious, but we also know that tackling the issue of accessibility and affordability is key to achieving the overall goal of solving childhood obesity in this generation.”

In New York City, for example, an organization called Just Food seeks to educate community members about food disparities and to help them increase access to local nutritious food. By promoting farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, advocating for urban farming initiatives, and mobilizing community members to make a difference, Just Food aims to aid in the fight against food insecurity from the ground up.

What about St. Louis?

Following the closures of several supermarkets in the 1990’s, many areas of St. Louis lacked access to full-service grocery stores. However, over the last four years, St. Louis City has made it a priority to fight the food desert problem among its neighborhoods. Combined government and community efforts have led to the construction of new supermarkets in previously underserved areas. It’s not perfect, but the USDA’s Food Desert Locator indicates that nearly all of St. Louis City is food desert-free as of 2015.

Unfortunately, this relief in the city has not spread into the surrounding areas as effectively. Several of the communities to the North and East of the city are still food deserts.

Food for Thought

For many of us, our biggest concerns regarding food are how long it will take for us to cook, what type of cuisine we want to order in tonight, what the DUC is serving for lunch, or how to stay up to date on the latest food trends. But for many, food is a constant concern. For many, food is far from a guarantee.

Consider how often you have had to wonder if you would be able to find something on your grocery list. Or if you struggled to find a method of transport to get you to a supermarket. If these have never been concern, then reflect on what privilege comes with not having to worry.

There is a tendency to view food accessibility as an issue that affects those in faraway countries, and not a modern problem within the richest nation in the world. But for the more vulnerable populations in our communities, food can serve as a tool of disenfranchisement. When Americans lack access to the most basic of human necessities, our system maintains and perpetuates historical inequality by impacting the health, well-being, and access to opportunity enjoyed by communities.

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