What Are Food Deserts?
What is a Food Desert?With the current injustices coming to surface over the past few weeks, it's important for us to touch on food injustice that impacts the Black communities in America, and all over the world. Food deserts are places where people don’t have access to affordable, organic, & nutritious foods like fruit & veggies. Instead of grocery stores or farmer's markets, these areas often have convenience stores and gas stations with little-to-no space available for healthy options. Accessibility & proximity to a store is only a few factors that influence a person's ability to eat healthily. Income, resources, socioeconomic status, & transportation are huge factors that prevent people from healthy food!
Location?Food deserts are common in urban environments, such as inner cities. Roughly 82% of food deserts are in urban areas, but rural communities have food deserts as well. According to the USDA, an estimated 54.4 million people, or 17.7 percent of the U.S. population, live in tracts that are low-income and low access and are more than ½ mile or 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. Food deserts are more common in the South and Midwest, with lower-income states such as Louisiana or Mississippi. These states have a high percentage of the population lacking access to healthy food, compared to states like California or Oregon. Lower-income areas are typically the hardest hit by food deserts.1/2 of all low-income zip codes (where the average income is under $25,000) qualify as food deserts.
Who Lives in Food Deserts?
Low-income individuals have the hardest time getting healthy foods, especially due to lack of income, resources, & transportation. More than two million households located in food deserts don't have a vehicle, according to the USDA. You can read about the connection of food deserts and racism here. Residents of urban food deserts also pay more for groceries than families in the suburbs. By one estimate, they pay up to 37% more for the same exact products (due to higher operating/shipping costs inside the city.) Living in a food desert means that paycheck won't stretch nearly as far as it would have in areas where fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins are more accessible. Most families opt for the less-healthy, more affordable options available to them.
Food deserts are also more likely to have:
- - Smaller populations
- - Lower levels of education
- - Higher unemployment rates
- - Higher rates of vacant homes
- - Higher concentrations of minority/colored residents
Impact on Health?The biggest health concern linked to food deserts is obesity. Since these people can’t easily access healthy foods, they eat less healthily than people who can. Unhealthy eating habits lead to weight gain, typically leading to obesity. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, increased risk of cancer, and pregnancy complications. The impact has the potential to last for generations, too, as kids of obese parents are more likely to become obese themselves. Unhealthy eating habits in the first few years of life impact a child's ability to grow and creates potential unhealthy life-long habits. Lack of nutritious, holistic food is linked to cognitive difficulties, weaker immune systems, and stunted growth. Adults not being able to buy food that they know is safe, can force them to take risks in order to feed themselves and their families.
What Can Be Done?Many organizations have begun implementing strategies/policies to bring produce & healthy foods to food deserts:
- - Building community gardens
- - Establishing local farmers markets
- - Improving public transportation from food deserts to groceries/markets
- - Fixing local laws & tax codes to entice supermarkets and other healthy food retailers to set up shop
Helping communities gain closer access to more affordable, healthy food options is an important step, followed by efforts to change eating behaviors through expanded nutrition education! Each area of food deserts & nutrition deficits is different, so it is important to make sure the solutions are feasible and obtainable for that particular local/socioeconomic group! As we know, food is deeply cultural, spiritual, and personal. In order to bring about any meaningful change, nutrition education should be created with these traditions in mind, being careful to acknowledge deeply rooted cultural norms found in every community.