Discussion: Food Deserts

The concept of food deserts — areas where a significant population, usually low-income, has no access to supermarkets and/or affordable, healthy food — came up in Monday’s post about the cost of junk food vs. healthy food. It’s easy, especially for those of us who live in cities and read blogs using our high speed Internet access, to come up with seemingly simple solutions to obesity, poor health and nutrition. Go to the grocery! Buy cheap veggies! Cook!

But what if you can’t? If you have no access to a grocery store (but MacDonalds… or 7/11 are a two minute walk), or your family can’t afford a vehicle (to get to a grocery store)? I think many of us — myself included — mean well when we engage in discourse about healthy living, but take for granted that we have access to supermarkets, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, vehicles, etc. Someone like me has the luxury of paying a higher rent for an apartment within walking distance of two grocery stores — my not having a vehicle doesn’t hinder access to healthy food. For many, it does.

Here are some factoids I picked up from this report from the USDA:

  • Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.
  • 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of Federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. (not all of these do not have vehicles)
  • Urban core areas with limited food access are characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality. In small-town and rural areas with limited food access, the lack of transportation infrastructure is the most defining characteristic.
  • A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all the foods needed for a healthy diet and that may offer these foods and other food at higher prices.

This is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s a complex issue, but one that does shed some light on why so many people — especially in the low income bracket — struggle with nutrition, health and obesity. For many, the solution isn’t “go to the grocery” or “cook” because that simply isn’t possible. Look at this map of official food deserts (no car and no grocery within one mile):

What are some of the solutions? (these are just ideas I’m throwing out, none of which are “simple” — bring up your own in the comments!)

  • fewer government subsides of corn & soy product, which are primarily used in processed foods and contribute to making them so cheap
  • increased government subsidies of farms that produce fruits & vegetables meant to be consumed by the general public (ie: not subsidizing a corn farm when the corn is turned into high fructose corn syrup). This would (hopefully) decrease prices of fruits/vegetable, when they are available
  • make organic/local fruit/veg delivery services affordable to those living in food deserts for whom transportation is an issue (what good is a grocery store if your family can’t afford to own a vehicle?)
  • invest in healthy school lunch programs/distributing good foods to children at schools in food deserts.
  • An incentive program to large supermarkets to set-up shop in food desert areas OR tax breaks to smaller markets so they don’t have to pass on high costs to the consumer (nothing wrong with a small market — but when they’re the only source in a food desert, they can jack up prices)

So I would love to discuss food deserts, especially from any readers who live in one or have lived in one. Have you seen a solution or program implemented that helped bring good food and nutrition to a poor area?

15 thoughts on “Discussion: Food Deserts”

  1. I wish that the map drilled down finer than by county. Wayne county in MI encompasses the actual city of Detroit, plus a couple of the richest suburbs. I lived in the city and while I had a car, it was a 20 min drive to the nearest Kroger. The Mexican market down the street had fairly good produce, but still wouldn’t get me all I wanted to eat. And the Eastern Market is only open on weekends. Also, I wonder if they count the Mexican markets (a couple of which are fairly large) as supermarkets.

    Detroit (Midtown) is getting a Whole Foods, but that still won’t address the issue in many of the other neighborhoods.

    I don’t really have any suggestions, other than trying to convince stores that the benefits to the communities is greater than their potential loss to crime. And for the inner city deserts, crime is the driving force behind the lack of supermarket, in my opinion.

    1. I wonder about that, myself. L.A. barely registers, but I’m sure there are areas that are problematic. I would love to see it drilled down for that large area.

  2. Great post. I’m never sure how to talk about “food deserts” and ways of improving eating habits across every class, because it’s something I’m so ill-equipped to talk about – I think solutions to these problems would have to come from the ground up, though it seems that programs like offering discounts when using food stamps to buy produce, can bring some change.

    To comment on your second point from your offered solutions – I think Mark Bittman who recently wrote a blog that touched on the idea of subsidizing things that…well, that AREN’T corn. He points out, and I think he’s right, that the government can’t subsidize fruits and vegetables, as you suggest; these are things that can’t be stored, that need to be consumed quickly. Only products like grain and corn, things that can be stored for a long time, can be subsidized.

    As for shipping locally grown/organic produce into food deserts – isn’t this ignoring the fact that many people in these areas can’t afford to pay the obscene prices for local or organic produce? The focus should be on offering affordable produce in the stores that are already available to shop at. (A side note of sorts – I’ve been living in the Balkans for the past two years, where every little store…really, EVERY. SINGLE. ONE….offers fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk. To get convenience stores in the States to offer the same products would be a hugely positive step; though it’s probably not likely to happen because it’s more profitable to sell packaged foods that aren’t going to spoil.)

    1. Hi Ellen! I will have to check out Bittman’s book — sounds like something right up my street! I would love to learn more about the nitty-gritty of food subsidies!

      My suggestion relating to produce delivery was that it be made affordable — ie: like a non-profit/grassroots organization that would undertake the cost of those baskets, in order to get them to people who need them (or a company/charity that subsidizes most of the cost so the consumer pays much less). I wonder if any such non-profit exists…

    1. Awww, thanks! I loved your Tumblr posts about it! I find this stuff really compelling. I think there’s a serious danger among weight loss bloggers (and journalists in general) to forget their privilege. One of my biggest pet peeves about coverage of the so-called “obesity epidemic” is that it’s all very patronizing, and operates on the assumption that everyone is an upper middle class white person with a good education. Then again, I’m also wary of painting lower class populations with a broad brush (which can be equally patronizing)… but I think there are FAR MORE obstacles to health in rural and lower income areas than in suburbia/yuppie cityville. What I spend on groceries each week could feed a family of four in another place. That’s very humbling. And my health has drastically improved since I moved to California, simply because the good food is readily available, at a decent cost. Location, location, location!

      And WTF is wrong with our country (and other nations, mind you — the UK also has food deserts, Canada too, I bet) where we have SO MUCH FOOD and wealth, but so many people are either starving, or eating utter crap for want of better food. It’s crazy. (which is why I place such onus on the food companies themselves, and federal regulation of advertising — it is NOT OK what companies peddling crap get to say on TV/in ads. The corn lobby “corn sugar” ad ENRAGES me.)

      1. The UK really doesn’t have food deserts! We have a whole lot of food problems here, but lack of access isn’t one of them – it’s almost impossible to escape the so-called “Big Four” supermarket chains, but one of the plus-points of that is an abundant supply of fresh and affordable food more or less everywhere. Even for those without vehicles, supermarkets provide free bus transport to and from stores and offer cheap online ordering.

        I think you put your finger on the big problem when you said there are far more obstacles in rural areas – the US is so huge that many areas are really remote and folks there are dependent on whatever big companies bring to them.

        Better subsidy policies would help a great deal; although it does to wheat what the US does to corn, the EU policy also ensures a steady supply of fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and olive oil at good prices.

  3. Arrggghh I typed a whole huge thing and it went away.

    What bothered me yesterday was all of the instructions that I should just make a pot of soup, or a big batch of something I can eat all week. Hate to break it to ya, but I’m not stupid. I know how to cook. I know that a big casserole would be cost effective. But I do not have the capital to invest in food like that. My rent alone is more than my income. When I go food shopping, it’s not like I have $10 or $100 to spend. I usually have 2 Sacajawea dollars, and need to eat for a day. And forgive me, but even though I’m poor I am allowed to eat things I find enjoyable. Eating food is a necessity, but there is nothing wrong with preferring it to be a pleasurable one. If I have to eat twice a day anyway, what is my motivation to spend more money on less satisfying food (a pot of beans, as opposed to a box of Kraft)? It seems like poor people are often expected to live virtuously. I get it, believe me I get upset when I see someone paying with food stamps and using an iPhone that I can’t afford. But when I’m too poor to go out with my friends, dine out, get drinks, leave the house at all except for working basically, it’s nice to have something to look forward to. I wish a big plate of lettuce sounded really good at the end of the day, but it doesn’t.

    I am interested in everyone’s answers. I think junky food is more readily available and for cheaper, and if healthful foods were made more affordable and accessible they may become more popular for those reasons alone. If the bag of salad I like (I know, but that is $3.00 for a meal and if I bought all the ingredients separately it’d cost a lot more upfront, regardless of the per-serving cost) were half the price, it would immediately become more attractive than a frozen pizza, just based on affordability (and being a more delicious offering than plain lettuce).

    1. I know what you mean! I don’t have as much limitation on cost as I did years ago, but I am a) lazy (I don’t want to cook. I just don’t. Some people don’t!) and b) I don’t LIKE a lot of “healthy” food. If you give me a choice, I will not buy: salad, beans, fancy whole grains, eggs (I really dislike eggs!), etc. And I am just not a big soup person. The looming boredom of the “pot of soup” waiting at home would inspire me to come up with a whole bevvy of excuses as to why it was “better” to order in Thai or eat Kraft Mac and Cheese (which I actually like, God help me, but I recognize is kind of terrible). Now, most of the healthy stuff I DO like and willingly purchase and eat is more expensive. (I would live off asparagus and brussel sprouts if they weren’t so damn pricey) Or, the ready meals that I like that are perfectly healthy (does microwaving count as cooking?) are pricey. Currently, I can afford a lot of the stuff I want to eat. A LOT of people simply cannot.

      There CAN be better processed/pre-packaged/ready made food. Food is so much better in the UK and Germany, it’s ridiculous, even the “crappy” stuff. I really think a problem in the U.S. is we don’t seem to care what shit corporations put into our food. My local market, Fresh & Easy (whose parent company also runs my fave British cheap market), has microwaveable ready meals for about $4. When I was in Britain, they even had the “slightly less nice” ready meals that were about 2 pounds. If supermarkets *wanted* to, they could create relatively cheap ready meals and sell them… but they don’t have to b/c processed stuff is cheaper to stock, and less expensive for patrons.

  4. Also, I have a ton of privilege too, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people without partners, or with children, or both. I live with my boyfriend so he can cover meals for me and other utilities, but he is a flight attendant and gone half of every week, and I would feel terrible being like, “Hey babe, can I have some lunch money for while you’re gone?”. I previously had a better-paying job, but hours became scarce so I switched jobs. Sadly, the new job’s hours are scarce TOO so that didn’t really help. We live near the DeKalb Farmer’s Market (woop woop, ATL represent), and while their prices are good, they still close at 9pm, and sometimes I don’t feel like cooking (or lack the money for an entire recipe’s worth of goods), and the store near my house is cheaper and has a bunch of junk. And people are allowed to have different priorities. When people sit on their high horse and say, “Look at you eating junk while I’m buying apples every day!” I kind of don’t get WHY they care.

    Man, I can ramble. Basically–I have it better than a lot of people and already struggle, and it’s tough for us all to walk in another’s shoes. It’s very easy to say, “Hey you, eat a pot of beans all week if you’re so poor!” but think about doing that for every week of your life, and consider how crappy it would be ON TOP OF being a poor person. I think this country has gone a really weird direction with all the (hate to use the phrase) class warfare.

    1. OMG! That’s my mom’s Farmer’s Market! (can I say, their fish section squicks me out — it smells SO BAD) I love how cheap their Chinese cracker mix is, yum. I find their veggie prices hit or miss, though, and pretty much none of it is local. (OMG I sound like a food snob!) Dekalb represent! I went to HS in ATL.

      So, yeah, I totally know where you are coming from, literally! ATL has a long way to come in terms of the yuppie food revolution (which is pretentious, but very handy, if you want cheaper, good food). Do you have a Trader Joes near you? If so, their frozen meals are relatively cheap and NOT loaded with preservatives. Since I, um, don’t cook, stuff from TJs that I can simply heat up that I know aren’t as shitty as the mainstream stuff at the grocery have been really helpful. I’m not as into their “fresh” non-frozen stuff b/c the prices are higher and the quality is so-so, but their frozen stuff is A+. (I feel like I should know if there’s a TJs… it’s just been a while!)

      1. Ugh, I wish there was! I love their quick stuff and their snacks, but the closest one is in Midtown and I live in Clarkston (about 3 miles opposite of Decatur from the Farmer’s Market, down Ponce…if that makes sense?). The affectionately-nicknamed Ghetto Mart near my house is pretty international as far as grocery items, but their produce is shabby and expensive since I guess it’s low-demand (funny how that works!). Also the Farmer’s Market is always crowded and even though it’s only a few miles there’s like 9 traffic lights, and to the Ghetto Mart is a mile with one traffic light.

        Atlanta has a ton of restaurants, but that’s not the same as having a ton of grocery stores. The only real major chains are Kroger and Publix, and their prices tend to be the same (or not as big of a difference, if you don’t buy the same thing every week). I love lots of veggies, but if I get a bunch of them for a stir-fry or quesadilla, even from the market, they’re more expensive than a pound of spaghetti with garlic and parm (and frozen brocco if I’m in that kinda mood!).

        What high school did you go to?! I went to Druid Hills!

        1. NO WAY! I went to Lakeside HS. Before that, I was at Shamrock Middle, which feeds to both schols, so a lot of my friends went to Druid Hills. Class of 2002!

  5. Duuuude. I went to Shamrock for a year in 8th grade, the last year it was a high school (1996). Graduated DHHS 2000!

  6. So…I recently moved to an area that is highlighted in red, and thankfully, I don’t fall into the category. There are grocery stores in walking distance of me, BUT I typically opt to drive to Whole Foods which is definitely not walking distance.

    Even in this area where I have a few choices very close (local markets and a super Wal-mart) I find it interesting (and kind of appalling) that the produce sections are so dismal. One store is hit or miss, another which is a few miles further typically yields fresh produce that rivals the cost at Whole Foods while Wal-mart has no problem selling strawberries that are covered in mold. (No, I’m not exaggerating.)

    So……while I’m fortunate to own a car and live near stores, I find myself traveling outside of my immediate area to stock up on white peaches, kale, spinach, zucchini and other fresh foods at Whole Foods which is more than half an hour away.

    It takes more effort to find healthy foods here so it’s no surprise that this region struggles with high obesity ratings. I like your proposal for incentive programs for large supermarkets because competition typically means better choices/prices for the consumer.

    And next time I’m in the mood to get smug about how easy it is to live healthy, I’ll remind myself that many people around me don’t see it quite the same way.

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