Introduction: Food Deserts
Learn about how living in a food desert affects people's well-being and what people are doing to change their communities.
by Edwin Marty, Executive Director of Jones Valley Urban Farm
The average American grocery store offers over 80,000 food options to its customers. Most of these are available year-round and at a relatively affordable price. Many Americans take this food cornucopia for granted, never considering that others growing up in either the inner-city or rural parts of the country don’t have these food options due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets. This situation, often called a “food desert,” disproportionately impacts low-income people and communities of color.
Corner stores and fast food restaurant fill this void, offering cheap, energy-dense food to communities that often lack good transportation to access better options. Since people tend to eat what is convenient and affordable, poor diet and subsequent health-related issues affect these communities in epidemic proportions. Other terms describing food deserts, such as “supermarket abandonment” or “food apartheid,” bring to light the intentional nature of how the food system has neglected disenfranchised communities.
Impact on Rural Communities
Before the 1960’s, most communities in both rural and urban America were built around town squares that offered numerous food purchasing opportunities. In addition, it was rare for a backyard to lack at least some fresh vegetables popping up from the garden. In fact, during and shortly after World War II, over 20 million home gardens (called Victory Gardens) provided over 40% of all consumed produce nationally.
Much of this changed fairly quickly, as farms were consolidated and farm workers were replaced by mechanization. In rural America, this simply meant fewer people bringing home paychecks and fewer people spending money. Local stores went out of business and before long; the few people left in these rural communities found they had virtually no food purchasing options. The silos filled with grain crops, often intended only for animal consumption, were a far cry from the suburban grocery stores being built on the farm land that used to supply them with fresh vegetables. Today, many rural communities experience multiple issues that make accessing healthy food a challenge. With fewer grocery stores, people have to travel farther to purchase food. Public transportation, however, is virtually non-existent in rural communities, and so without a personal vehicle, it is almost impossible to get fresh food.
A similar situation has occurred in America’s inner cities over the last forty years. As the growth of industrial manufacturing that often sparked urban development dwindled, there were fewer paying jobs in the city to support local stores. Simultaneously, racial and social tensions instigated significant population shifts away from the inner city into the suburbs. This trend, often called “white flight,” left many inner city communities without the buying power to sustain grocery store chains. Store owners followed the profits and moved to the suburbs. Exacerbating this change was a fairly intentional strategy by banks and zoning legislators to focus lending and development in non-urban areas- called “redlining”- thus creating a void that couldn’t be filled.
This shift, coupled with a second or even third generation removed from farming, meant that most families in the inner-city had neither access to fresh healthy food or capacity to grow and use non-processed food. Cities like Detroit, Los Angles, and New York are examples of what the consequences are of these changes. Large areas of these cities lack grocery stores or farmers markets and often good transit options that would enable people to access options outside of their communities. Supermarket redlining, resulting in fewer, bigger grocery stores that put smaller stores out of business, has pushed many communities into a complete void of good options for fresh healthy affordable food.
The occurrence of food deserts has created a social, economic, and health catastrophe. Children growing up in these communities often have limited-choice in their diets and focus on the sugary fat foods readily available at corner stores or local fast food restaurants. Resulting health issues- such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes- although sometimes referred to as “diseases of lifestyle,” have their root causes in the limited community food environment. These health consequences disproportionately affect people of color, low-income people, and people who already have other health issues. According to a nationwide study, expenses related to diabetes and obesity cost well over $130 million each year in medical and related expenses.
While the epidemic of diet-related disease shows no sign of slowing down, public awareness is pushing policy makers in both urban and rural communities into action. Because market-driven economies don’t always perfectly match supply with demand, government can provide extra incentives for private enterprises to fill the void. Numerous municipalities around the country, such as New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, are pushing tax incentives to encourage healthy food options in urban areas. Cities can levy a higher tax on restaurants that serve high-fast foods than those that serve fresh un-processed foods. If it becomes more profitable to sell fresh healthy food than sugary high fat foods, people living in food deserts will have a much easier time making the healthy choice.
While tax-incentives can help encourage better food choices in food deserts, there is still a need to provide start-up capital for businesses interested in supplying good food options. It can be very difficult to find funding to start a grocery store in a low-income community where major grocery store chains refuse to go. Again, local governments are beginning to recognize how a small amount of financing can prevent an avalanche of health-related costs down the road. With municipal support, stores like Farmers Best Market in Chicago are now providing access to high quality fresh foods in a section of town previously considered a food desert. Communities like Grove, Kansas are coming together to start and run their own grocery: GCIA Grocery. This store provides fresh food access to this rural community that lost a major supermarket chain and had nothing to replace it. Now they have good food access and an economic driver that keeps their money local.
In addition to grocery stores, farmers markets can provide the freshest possible food to a community, often at the best possible price. Where there isn’t sufficient demand for a full market, mobile farmers markets are being developed in place like the Columbia Gorge, Oregon. The Gorge Grown Mobile Market now provides direct weekly access to fresh affordable produce for numerous rural communities around the Columbia Gorge every Saturday and Sunday. Similar models are being developed in urban communities around the country, such as The Juice Project in St. Louis, MO.
Transforming food deserts doesn’t always require government or corporate intervention. Some of the best transformations result from individuals or grassroots organizations getting involved. Community Food Assessments are unfolding all over the country, often driven by communities wanting to better understand how to make positive change. Food assessments can occur in number of ways but always provide solid information for making better decisions about how to encourage growth in a community that will help individual’s access better food, and ideally stimulate a local economy.
Food Policy Councils are often one result of these assessments. While these food policy councils have many forms, they are usually a collection of individuals, grassroots organizations, corporations, and municipalities. Communities around the country are now recognizing how much positive change can occur when governments are offered policy recommendations based on credible data that encourage healthy eating and stimulate the economy.
Another popular movement that’s sweeping the country is the development of community gardens and urban farms. These grassroots initiatives often happen in the midst of food deserts and provide direct food access to communities that need it the most. There is simply no easier way for a community to improve health for everyone than by converting vacant land into a vibrant place for food production.
Projects like Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham, Alabama are transforming vacant land into production farms and selling the produce to the local community. They provide education programs to connect children in the community with good fresh healthy food and teach other communities how to start similar projects. Huerto de la Familia, located in Eugene, Oregon, is another grassroots urban garden that provides assistance to low-income Latino families to grow their own food using organic techniques. They provide training and materials to increase success and remove barriers for these families to eat good fresh clean food. While many of these projects have been going on for decades, there has been a recent surge of interest in the production of healthy, sustainable food; most cities throughout the county are seeing gardens sprout up in inner cities.
Even if there isn’t space or interest in starting a garden, encouraging the development of a local farmers market can often address the same need with even fewer resources. Farmers’ markets are popping up at an incredibly fast rate throughout the country, linking local farmers directly with the people who benefit most from the delicious fruits of their labor. In fact, the number of farmers’ markets has risen from 167% from 1994 to 2008. Many of these farmers’ markets are beginning to accept EBT cards.
Grassroots activity to address food deserts is happening in non-urban areas as well. WhyHunger is working in a number of food desert communities around the country to provide assistance in developing a local, sustainable food system. In Southeastern Arizona, WhyHunger hosted a Healthy Food, Healthy Future conference that brought a wide-spectrum of community stakeholders together to envision a better food system. Project groups were formed out of this envisioning process, and research has begun to develop projects such as community kitchen incubators and youth food school curricula. This work has lead to the creation of a network of Arizonans called Somos La Semilla (We Are the Seed).
In the Mississippi Delta, WhyHunger has been working with communities to illuminate values and priorities for a new local food system. They developed a network of stakeholders who have committed to building local assets such as community resource maps, nutrition education programs and school gardens. Participants including health workers, educators, community organizers, legislators, youth, and growers are carrying these projects to fruition through a new initiative they’ve called Delta Fresh Foods.