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Everything You Need to Know About “Food Deserts”

Everything You Need to Know About “Food Deserts”

The majority of the American population takes for granted their ability to go to the grocery store when the need for food arises. However, for others in the United States, a trip to the grocery store constitutes a major undertaking. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a Food Desert as a community that has limited access to nutritious food that is affordable. Many who live in food deserts live in rural low-income neighborhoods, or in urban areas far from transportation. These populations suffer from lack of access to nutritious food items, and as a result purchase their food from nearby restaurants, fast food chains or convenience stores. As a result, people living in food deserts often suffer from a wide range of nutritionally based diseases, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Living in a food desert has long-ranging implications, and the attempts to counteract these areas of low access continues to move slower than the rate of growth in these urban and rural low-income areas. Food deserts are a real problem, and currently, experts are unsure of the best approach to eliminate them.

What is a food desert?

Impoverished areas that have a lack of access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods are considered food deserts. This means that there are no grocery stores, food retailers or farmers’ markets for 10 miles. In many of these impoverished areas, transportation may be limited, or nonexistent. What is often available in these food desert areas are convenience stores, where most of the food is processed, quick to consume and high in fat content. Alternatively, in impoverished areas, the only restaurants are fast food establishments, which offer menus that do not meet the daily recommended values for nutrition. In 2015, Michelle Obama, the former first lady, instituted the Health Food Financing Initiative to entice grocery stores and healthy restaurants to move into lower income areas.

How do food deserts happen?

Food deserts are a relatively new phenomenon. 50 years prior, most small neighborhoods had their own local grocery stores, run by local residents. However, with the rise of the large supermarket chain grocery stores, most small family grocers went out of business. In the 1960s to 1970s many families left the urban centers to live in the newly conceived idea of suburban living. Groceries and restaurants followed them, leaving areas without a way to offer nutritional food choices. When businesses leave an area, and no new businesses move in to fill the void, a food desert can form.

Who lives in a food desert?

One of the reasons that food deserts are particularly devastating is that they occur in areas that are already combating extreme poverty. Many who live in these low-income urban and rural areas experience food insecurity, which means that these people do not know where their next meal is coming from. The USDA estimates that, as of 2006, more than 35 million people lived with food insecurity. The populations who live below the poverty line are the most affected by food insecurity, and include households with children, single-mother homes, and African American and Hispanic homes.

The Impact of Living in a Food Desert

Lacking access to proper nutrition can have a direct impact on many areas of a person’s life. Children have the specific issue of a difficult time learning and functioning at school. Families who are food insecure can suffer from a whole range of problems, from obesity to heart disease. This is because families living in food deserts only have access to high-calorie, low nutritional types of foods. Economically, the impact is equally devastating. No one wants to live where access to food is difficult. Therefore, new businesses will not move in, and newer, affluent neighbors will avoid the area. Large supermarket chains do not often choose to locate in rural areas because of the insufficient number of people living in the area to make it profitable. Also, the supermarkets and food stores that do determine to locate into these food desert areas often charge more for the food in comparison to their suburban counterparts.

Impoverished families often receive food stamps and other government subsidies, so resources are thin. Many living in a food desert will go to great lengths to travel to grocery stores where their food dollars will go further, even if this means taking multiple buses and an entire day to get there. This inequity has given rise to several foundations and groups whose aim is to bring food back into the food deserts so that those living in these neighborhoods can begin to live healthier lives.

What is being done to alleviate food deserts?

No one group seems to agree on how food deserts might best be eliminated. Some urban areas offer mobile supermarkets that bring healthier food choices to residents in the food deserts. Food desert residents on food stamps can now use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards online and often order their groceries online. However, these solutions are either too costly or simply not a permanent fix. Some residents in food deserts have banded together to form their own neighborhood food programs, where they create and maintain a community garden or offer a food cooperation group with other areas nearby. Some cities have begun to offer incentives for stores to go into underserved areas and for farmers’ markets to accept food stamps. Still, much work has yet to be done, and until the federal government begins to step in to help as well, it is uncertain how each state will tackle this continuing problem.