Have you ever dreamed of lying around on a desert island, soaking up the sun?  Well today, around 23.5 million Americans live in the desert[1].  That’s not the idyllic white sands and cocktails type of desert though – in fact, it’s much more sinister than that.  They live in food deserts. 

 Desert Island Dreams

Food Deserts in America are full of dreams of only one thing – easy access to healthy, affordable foods.  To qualify as a food desert, then, a geographical location will offer little or no affordable, healthy food options within a reasonable travelling distance[2].  There are more of these areas than you would think.  In fact, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that nearly 24 million people in America today live more than one mile away from a supermarket and have limited or no means of transport.  What’s scarier is that 2.3 million Americans are living in low-income, rural communities that are ten or more miles away from retail outlets selling a good range of healthful foods[3].   That’s an awfully long way to go for fruits and vegetables, especially when you don’t own a vehicle and public transportation is poor.   

 Population Segregation

One of the truly terrible things about food deserts in America today is how succinctly they seem to segregate large sections of the population.  The majority of food deserts are found in low-income areas or locations with high levels of mixed race, Black, and Hispanic populations.  Research by Baker et al. suggested that mixed race communities are significantly less likely to have access to healthy foods than areas that are predominately white[4].  In fact, white areas are estimated to have four times as many supermarkets as mixed race areas, and African American communities have a stark lack of selection[5].

 The same could be said of those communities facing serious socio-economic difficulties.  Economic problems often force grocery stores further and further away from towns and cities, meaning that individuals living in poor areas need to take one or more buses simply to get access to healthy foods.  It is estimated that there are three times as many supermarkets in wealthy areas as there are in low-income areas. 

 A Deathly Inconvenience

 It is undeniable that where you live can have a massive impact on your health.

It is undeniable that where you live can have a massive impact on your health.

Food deserts are not simply an inconvenience though.  They are a matter of life and death. 

 Low-income neighbourhoods that have little or no access to supermarkets tend to be flooded with convenience stores (perhaps so called for their convenient path to sugar addiction and health-related disease) and fast-food joints.  These retail outlets are filled with poor choices and foods that are high in saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, and simple sugars.  That is, they are stocked full with those foods that are known to cause obesity, heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, cancer, and other diet-related health problems.  They are stocked with these foods, and little else[6].  They make no provisions for those facing awkward dietary requirements, such as lactose or wheat intolerances, and more often than not, small grocery stores charge much higher prices, meaning that the poorest people are paying the most of their foods. 

 Given this, it is no surprise that Morland et al., in a 2006 study, found that rates of obesity (and hence, obesity-related illnesses) were somewhat higher in areas that are served predominately by convenience stores – in other words, in food deserts[7].  In fact, the link between unhealthy foods and dietary illness in low-income and mixed race communities is glaringly obvious.  Supermarkets and grocery stores may be saving money by moving further away from these communities but the cost it leaves us with is frightening. 

 Finding Solutions

 Of course, large supermarket companies can’t be forced to open new branches in low-income (and thus not financially attractive) areas, but there are some things that can be done.  Tax breaks and financial incentives for new stores are just the start.  Community gardens could be built to provide space and utilities for communities living in food deserts to grow their own fruits and vegetables.  Improved public transport links would help too.  Some of these campaigns are already on the right track:

 In 2008, Los Angeles City Council implemented a ban on fast-food joints opening within a certain radius and that encompassed the South LA food desert, where 97% of the population is Latino, African American, or mixed race.  The lack of food options has led to an increased demand for healthy options and wider selections.  Their ban had worked and so, they passed another motion offering financial incentives to those providing healthy food choices[8]

 In New York, where approximately 750,000 people live in food deserts, and where supermarkets were rapidly closing due to financial pressures, the City instigated a ‘Green Carts’ programme that offered not only fresh fruits and vegetables to the general populace but provided job opportunities and brought in much needed revenue[9]

 In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama, along with the Obama administration, launched the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, with the goal of creating a healthier generation of children and young adults.  One of the aims of this campaign is the complete eradication of food deserts in America by 2017.  In view of this, the government have invested $400 million into the campaign, partly to give tax breaks to supermarkets who open stores in food deserts[10]

 It’s Only Just Begun

 Perhaps then, when considering the obesity epidemic facing America today, we need to not only blame a lack of education, or laziness, or pure greed.  Perhaps we need to face the awful truth that as a society, we are simply not doing enough to help those in need, that perhaps it’s not as simple as just eating more fruits and vegetables, that perhaps people really are trying to help themselves but can’t find a way out, that it is undeniable that where you live can have a massive impact on your health.  Campaigns such as those forged by the First Lady are a start but there is still an awfully long way to go. 

 

 

{C}[1]{C} Susan Blumenthal, 2013, Transforming Food Deserts and Swamps to Fight Obesity [online]  Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-blumenthal/food-deserts_b_3822428.html [accessed 17th March 2014]

{C}[2]{C} Food Empowerment Project, 2014, Food Deserts [online] Available at: http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/ [accessed 17th March 2014]

{C}[3]{C} Do Something.org, 11 Facts About Food Deserts [online] Available at: https://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-food-deserts [accessed 17th March 2014]

{C}[4]{C} Wikipedia, 2014, Food Desert [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_desert [accessed 17th March 2014]

[5]{C} Food Empowerment Project

[6]{C} Ibid.

{C}[7]{C} Wikipedia

[8]{C} Food Empowerment Project

[9]{C} Ibid.

[10]{C} Ibid.

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Food Desert by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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