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?