“The Significance of Food Deserts And What Can Be Done About It?”

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I remember several years ago attending a Nutrition Conference and first hearing the term “food desert” and seeing pictures of areas (neighborhoods) with many fast food restaurants and small convenience stores, but little to no grocery stores and supermarkets. A contrasting picture was one of a neighborhood with several grocery stores and supermarkets, selling fresh fruits and vegetables, all in close proximity to one another. At the time, I did not know the terms for these neighborhoods, since it was not as rampantly spoke of. The neighborhoods without these grocery stores and supermarkets are called “food deserts”. In contrast, the neighborhoods that were heavily filled with several grocery stores and supermarkets in close proximity to one another are called “food oasis”.

After researching the significance of the term “food desert” and why they exist, I had to dive in deeper. Of course I knew that in lower socioeconomic areas, there is less abundance of grocery stores and supermarkets, but did not realize the extent of how much fewer there were, nor the implications this had on the people living there accessing fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, especially when transportation presented several obstacles. Why are people who may be at lower socioeconomic means, not be availed the access to enough grocery stores and supermarkets and how can this affect their health? These were some of the questions that arose in my mind as I thought of the drastic implications these measures can take. Is there a way to combat this and why is it important? What policies, if any, are out there, surrounding this important issue and how can people can get easy access to fresh and nutritious food?

What we do know is that a food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food, usually referring to a grocery store or supermarket located a distance away. In contrast with a food desert would be a food oasis, which is an area with higher access to supermarkets or vegetable shops such as farmer’s markets and grocery stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The theory of the food desert is that people living in food deserts would be more food insecure and eat a less healthy diet than others. So, why don’t these stores exist in such neighborhoods? The main reason appears to be that it is difficult for these stores to make profit providing food to low-income populations. Economic disparity at it’s unfortunate best.

Food deserts in socioeconomic areas have been found to be in black and brown communities and low income areas (where many don’t even own cars ). This makes it more difficult for people to travel to these stores to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies have found that higher socioeconomic level districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in African American communities are smaller with less selection. People’s food choices are limited by what is available to them and what they can afford. Food deserts popping up in lower socioeconomic areas have been found to show an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and foods that are high in fat, such as processed, packaged items. (foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/). In other words, junk foods with little nutritional value is what is available mainly to poorer people.

The problem is that people living in neighborhoods without access to a full-service supermarket will be more food insecure and eat a worse diet than others. However, the main reason these grocery stores and supermarkets are not already there is because it is difficult to make profits in lower socioeconomic areas. So, what is being done about this? As we know, not having easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables can have direct implications on people’s well-being and be hazardous to their health. What has been found is that food deserts contribute significantly to obesity among low-income preschool children. So yes, living in a food desert is not incidental, it has an independent effect on obesity. In addition, rising rates of obesity, contribute to increased rates of diabetes (type 2- adult onset) and validate that food deserts significantly matter in reference to public health!

How can people and the state combat food deserts? One way is to make healthy food available in all neighborhoods. Access to grocery stores and supermarkets is essential in making this happen. Also, offer basic, simple cooking classes to educate people on how to prepare a healthy meal. Making healthy food choices is extremely important in taking control of one’s health and preventing the epidemic of obesity. The key is to getting food into food deserts is to make it as easy as possible for people to access fresh, healthy food. Some efforts are being made with bus stop farmers markets putting food where people already are (which makes it convenient to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables on their way home). The problem with food deserts is that people living in neighborhoods without access to a full-service supermarket will be more food insecure and eat a less-healthy diet than others. However, the main reason these stores are not in these underserved areas is because they are less profitable to the owners.

So, how can people in food deserts get fresh and nutritious food? Several things are being looked at and worked on to overcome the problem of eradicating food deserts. These include: Building community gardens, establish local farmers markets, improve public transportation from food deserts to established markets, and fixing local laws and tax codes to entice supermarkets and other healthy food retailers to set up shop. According to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2% of all US Households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car. (foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/). In urban areas, access to public transportation may help residents overcome the difficulties ensued by distance, but economic forces have driven grocery stores out of many cities in recent years. Sometimes, due to not having a car and stores being so few and far between, people have had to take multiple forms of transportation (buses and trains) to travel to a store, resulting in a few hours of traveling to a store to buy food.

There also have been some issues with collecting data on what is taking place in “food deserts”. According to the Food Empowerment Project’s report, “Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” shows it is possible to overlook communities that are located in food deserts when relying on data collected by the US government. According to the NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) is the standard used by federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments. What has been seen is that small corner grocery stores are put together with supermarkets, such as Safeway, Whole Foods Market, etc. In other words, a community with no supermarkets and two corner grocery stores that offer liquor and food would be oriented as having two retail food outlets, even though the food offered may be limited and consist of processed, pre-packaged foods. So, there are some issues here to overcome.

Some other problems found are that those living in food deserts may also find it difficult to locate foods that are culturally appropriate for them. Also, dietary restrictions such as gluten or lactose intolerance, pose challenges and limit food choices they would not have access to in larger grocery stores that would have a greater selection. In addition, studies have found that urban residents who purchase groceries at small neighborhood stores pay between 3 and 37 percent more than suburbanites buying the same products at supermarkets. Overall, healthier foods costing more is an issue for those in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

Very importantly, what we are seeing here is an INCREASE in rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. This is extremely serious and need to be addressed. Many of these diabetes and obesity rates are being found in adolescents in the past decade alone, which has not been seen before. Type 2 diabetes is considered adult-onset and rates of this disease are being seen in adolescents at a rate not seen before. Obesity seen in preschool and adolescent kids have also risen and as The Food Empowerment Project highlights, “proximity to food providers” such as grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers markets, are not the only reason this is occurring. Yes, food desert is the term being used, however, according to The Food Empowerment Project, there is a much deeper, fundamental problem that we need to get at which corresponds with a larger issue. The economic disparity among areas that are considered food oppressed is largely correlated. So, factors such as cost of living, cultural appropriateness of available foods, the ability of people to grow their own food, all factor into this underlying problem of food deserts. (foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/). Yes, I do believe more access to fresh and available foods and an increase in grocery stores, supermarkets, and farmers markets, should occur where there are “food deserts.” However, this will not be the sole answer to eradicating the problem of “food deserts.”

Studies have also been done where more grocery stores and supermarkets have been placed in food insecure areas and little change was found on the shopping habits of individuals living in these lower socioeconomic areas. Some mentioned that ideas of elitism with buying kale and fresh vegetables may correspond with the small changes seen in foods purchased. However, I believe more education around the importance of incorporating healthy foods into the diet and how this ultimately impacts one’s health is vital. Education, basic cooking classes to teach how to properly prepare a healthy meal (simple and fun), and an increase in grocery stores, farmers markets, and supermarkets are all essential in helping to eradicate the problem of “food deserts”. It will be a collaborative effort needed at a local, state, and governmental level to address the problem of poverty and educate, increase availability to grocery stores/farmers markets and supermarkets, and incorporate basic, simple cooking classes to completely eradicate the problem of “food deserts.” Only until we face this problem in its entirety, will we combat it for good. These strides are very important and are slowly making a dent in the framework or the foundation of “food deserts”. Let’s continue to press forward with eradicating it for good.

Yet, let’s once and for all, overcome the obstacle of food insecurity and food deserts by focusing on the real problem- the importance of education about basic nutrition and how it impacts one’s health, incorporating basic cooking classes into stores to teach simple ways to prepare healthy foods, and increasing availability of grocery stores and supermarkets in underprivileged areas, and very importantly, dealing with the economic disparity so prevalent in society. Working together we can use our voices to eradicate this issue of scarcity once and for all and be victorious! We are living in a country where scarcity should not exist. We can and will do it with a positive mindset and desire to transform into the best version of ourselves. Pressing forward to promote global awareness and eradicate food insecurity is vital to our moral conscious as a nation, as well as our overall physical well-being. Contact Nutrition Wellness to transform into the best version of yourself!

 

Written By: Maria Khaled RD, LD

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to ““The Significance of Food Deserts And What Can Be Done About It?”

  • Josiah Thomas
    4 months ago

    I always love to thoroughly read all of your posts and I enjoy them al very very much. Very intuitive and positive messages to get across and I love you very much my friend and you are awesome ❤️❤️❤️

  • Josiah Thomas
    4 months ago

    I’m your biggest fan baby and you rock and are awesome and amazing g my friend ❤️ love you very much

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