“Food deserts” are defined by the American Nutrition Association as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” These regions are also sometimes—perhaps more accurately—referred to as “food swamps,” since they lack access to healthy food, but generally provide lots of easy access to a plethora of unhealthy, low-nutrient fast food.
Food deserts are often framed as an urban problem, but they exist in rural areas, too. According to the USDA, an estimated total of 13.6 million Americans live in areas that are considered food deserts, and a recent study that examined social media posts about food suggests that a person’s proximity to a healthy food store does impact the healthiness of their meals—the researchers found that only 33 percent of posts from people in food deserts mention fruits and vegetables, compared with 48 percent of posts from people in non-food deserts.
“The challenges for families that lack access to healthy food are vast,” Gabriella Mora, a Senior Associate in Policy and Government Affairs atthe Food Trust, tells WomensHealthMag.com. “Imagine a scenario where a single, working mom with young children and no car is having to take two buses and a train and travel an hour each way just to get to the closest grocery store. That’s actually a pretty common scenario, and that inequity creates a lot of barriers to making healthy food choices, since it’s likely much simpler to get to something that’s closer by, but an unhealthy food choice.”
“For a lot of kids,” she adds, “it’s way easier to get a grape soda than a handful of grapes, or an orange soda than an actual orange.”
The Food Trust, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1992, specializes in bringing healthy food access to underserved populations throughout the country. Mora works as a policy advocate for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which provides financial incentives for businesses to open in healthy food stores in underserved areas, and is a key component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which aims to lower childhood obesity rates.
“We actually don’t love the term ‘food desert,’” Mora says. “It seems to imply that a community is barren, that there’s nothing there to nurture…so instead, we generally refer to these communities as being ‘underserved’ by healthy food access.”
“There’s a lot of history that goes into why these regions are under-served,” Mora says. “Thirty years ago there was a mass exodus of higher-income people to the suburbs, and grocery stores went with them, leaving behind people who are mostly disenfranchised. We’re not talking about a subset of a very few, but a great number of people. In Philadelphia, for example, half of the population is considered lower-income, and lack of access to healthy food is disproportionately affecting a large number of poor people, since lower-income communities are generally disinvested in, rather than invested in.”
“We actually don’t love the term ‘food desert.’ It seems to imply that a community is barren, that there’s nothing there to nurture.”
This divestment could be part of the reason that in the U.S., annual income levels are now (more than any other time in our history) one of the best predictors of how long you will live, with poor Americans dying an average of 12 years earlier than their wealthy counterparts. (It’s also worth noting that it isn’t like this everywhere—for example, one recent study found that while the richest Americans live longer than the the richest Costa Ricans, the poorest Costa Ricans often live significantly longer, healthier lives than the poorest Americans do.)
Critics of programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative have suggested that poverty itself, and the constant stress factors that accompany being strapped for cash, actually put more of a health burden on poor people than a lack of access to fresh food does, and some studieshave suggested that proximity to healthy food alone isn’t enough to significantly change people’s diets or health outcomes. Cost is another major factor.
For a parent trying to feed a family of five on a weekly budget of $100, the choice might come down to four grocery bags of less nutritious, processed foods versus just one bag of organic produce—which isn’t much of a choice when your purchases have to feed your family for the whole week. Healthy food also generally has a shorter shelf life, which poses challenges for people who only shop periodically because they have to travel a long distance to do so, since they can’t afford to let any of their food purchases go bad.
“Many low-income families have to make really hard choices about their food purchasing choices in a way many of us don’t.”
“We believe in a comprehensive approach to food and food culture,” Mora explains. “The Food Trust and a number of other great organizations are developing programs that provide underserved communities not only with access to healthy food, but also to ways to make healthy food more affordable, and to provide comprehensive nutrition education, like instructions on how to cook, and prepare, and store healthy foods so they last.”
One of those initiatives, the Healthy Corner Store program, which launched in Philadelphia and is now being organized in a number of other cities and states, not only partners with store owners to increase the availability of healthy foods, but also provides local residents with free healthy cooking classes and health screenings, along with high-value coupons for heart-healthy foods.
“We’ve also seen success with creating a healthy food incentive program with SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] shoppers,” Mora says, “where we increased their purchase power for fruits and veggies, so families received an extra $2 for every $5 spent on fruits, and vegetables or an extra $4 for every $10, etcetera, and we saw a huge increase in those purchases.”
Mora pointed out that there’s still a lot to be done — and that there are plenty of ways to get involved and help out.
There are a huge number of local organizations working to bring healthy food access to underserved communities across the U.S., including food pantries and farmer’s markets, and partnerships with local governments aimed at opening new healthy food stores in underserved areas. Volunteering with or lending financial support to the organizations doing this work near you can make a huge difference.
As far as major grocery stores opening up in traditionally underserved areas, Mora says that the Healthy Food Financing Program generally makes a point of supporting independent grocers, but notes that a few large chains like Whole Foods have also started taking the availability of healthy food in lower-income communities into account when deciding where to open new locations. For their part, Whole Foods recently announced that they plan to open 13 new 365 stores, which feature organic produce and Whole Foods’ more affordable in-house-label items, in 2016 and 2017. The German-owned grocery chain Aldi, which has substantially upped its healthy, organic, low-cost offerings in recent years, regularly opens locations in areas that are considered food deserts with a great deal of success, and shows no signs of slowing down.
“The more people that can be a part of this movement, the better,” Mora says. “Eating is something we all do every day, and food is so rooted in our culture…so this is really an issue we can all connect with. Having access to healthy food should be a right, not a privilege. It’s something we all deserve…this is a bipartisan issue.”
“Having access to healthy food should be a right, not a privilege.”
It may appear to be a bipartisan issue, but we haven’t heard much about healthy food access from any of the presidential candidates thus far. Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders mentioned the absence of grocery stores in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods once (and has supported a number of bills aimed at increasing the availability of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods), but the other candidates have all remained virtually silent on the issue thus far—though Hillary Clinton has workedvigilantly to increase food security outside the U.S.
To help elevate the conversation around healthy food access for low-income Americans, Mora suggests contacting your state legislators first.
“I work in federal policy, so I’m very aware that by and large we do not communicate with our elected officials outside of polling time,” she says. “It only takes about five phone calls for any representative or senator to take serious note of an issue. That’s how few people are communicating with them, and how little effort it takes to get them moving on an issue.”
“You can completely transform a neighborhood with a new grocery store,” Mora adds. “In addition to healthy food access, it also creates new jobs and important community space…and our civic engagement on issues like this is really quite powerful. We can get a lot done together.”
“Food is expensive,” Mora says, “and for many low-income families, it can be where the majority of their disposable income has to go. That’s a real challenge, and those families have to make really hard choices about their food purchasing choices in a way many of us don’t.”