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Food and Health Food Politics

From Food Deserts to Food Oases: Addressing Access to Healthy Food

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14 min read
Summary

Millions of people in the US and around the world live in “food deserts”: areas where it’s hard or even impossible to find healthy food. These food deserts promote poor health outcomes, are a drag on our economy, and reinforce the worst effects of racism. How did food deserts come to be? What do they cost all of us? And what can we do to make healthy food available for all?

Everybody eats. Regardless of politics, skin color, religion, or how much money we have in the bank, we all need food to live. And we all need healthy food to be healthy.

But not all of us have the same access to nutritious food. Not by a long shot.

Areas without access to nutritious, high-quality, affordable food are known as food deserts. The USDA defines them as any area with a 20% or greater poverty rate, and where a third or more of the residents live more than a mile away from a supermarket.

Food deserts tend to be predominantly areas of low income, areas where residents often don’t have cars, and they are almost always communities of color. It’s a sad reality that health outcomes are worse for people of lower-income. And on account of a legacy of racism, people of color are more likely to fall into low-income groups.

In fact, one study found that Black Americans are nearly 400% more likely than white Americans to live in a neighborhood or community that lacks a full-service supermarket.

The “Food” in Food Deserts

Fast food and junk food, which are rampant in food deserts
iStock.com/happy_lark

Food Revolution Summit speaker Ron Finley, a food justice advocate in South Los Angeles, California, says that in his community, it’s easier to get alcohol than it is to get an organic apple. He tells us: “A food desert is a place where there is absolutely no chance, opportunity, or hope to get any kind of healthy nutritious food. The food that is distributed in these communities is sub-par, and it is coming from different parts of the world. It is sprayed with toxins and poisons and picked before its time… On top of that, there is a proliferation of fast food, which a lot of time is the only option that residents of these communities have… The drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.”

It’s not necessarily the case that people living in food deserts don’t have plenty of access to calories. In fact, these areas tend to be oversaturated with liquor stores, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants — establishments that sell highly processed foods that provide excessive levels of sugar, oil, salt, and artificial ingredients, as well as factory-farmed meat and dairy. There is no shortage whatsoever of sodas and snacks, pastries and white bread, cookies, and crackers; and there are plenty of alcohol and tobacco products to boot.

But healthy food? Not so much.

The Health Impact of Food Deserts

Dropped to-go container of French fries
iStock.com/lolostock

Food deserts limit access to food resources, particularly healthy and culturally appropriate foods. This can have a profound and lasting negative effect on people’s lives and their health outcomes.

Around the world, there’s a direct correlation not just between poverty and hunger, but also between poverty and obesity. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the less money you have, the more likely you are to struggle with your weight. The brutal reality is that poverty typically makes it difficult to feed your family at all — and harder still to provide real, healthy food.

In the developed world, statistically, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to depend, for the majority of your calories, on highly processed and nutritionally inadequate food. And the more likely you are to die of diet-fueled diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and type 2 diabetes.

People living in food deserts who often rely on fast food have seven times the risk of having a stroke before age 45, double the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes, and four times the risk of kidney failure.

Unfortunately, the people who can least afford to get sick are also the most likely to suffer from chronic illness.

What Causes All of This?

People waiting in line for food
iStock.com/A&J Fotos

There isn’t just one cause of food deserts. Let’s examine some of the different factors involved in their development.

Poverty

Right now, more than 820 million people worldwide, and as many as 54 million Americans, are confronted with food insecurity. So long as there is grinding poverty — so long as some people struggle to eat at all — there will almost certainly continue to be disparities in health outcomes that play out along class lines.

Many of the people who live in food deserts work minimum wage jobs, and often multiple jobs. In fact, many food deserts are also “wage deserts,” in which the work available doesn’t provide basic necessities for at least 80% of the primary jobholders. So even if the people living in wage deserts work full-time, and even if they do have access to full-service grocery stores with healthy items, they might not feel able to afford healthy food since, thanks to a truly perverse system of subsidies, healthy food sometimes costs more than unhealthy choices.

Subsidies

Pretty much everyone knows that we all need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. But less than 1% of farm subsidies today support the research, production, or marketing of these healthy foods. What foods and what crops, then, are we subsidizing? Primarily, the mass production of gargantuan amounts of corn, soy, and wheat.

These highly subsidized crops have two primary uses in the modern diet: as animal feed in factory farms, which brings down the price of industrial meat; and as ingredients in highly processed and nutrient-poor junk foods. This brings down the price of food-like products that are nutritionally horrendous, contributing to skyrocketing medical costs.

Food subsidies are the primary reason why, over the last four decades, the price of processed foods and industrial meat has gone down 20-30%, while the price of fruits and vegetables has increased 40%.

When we build a society in which cycles of intergenerational poverty persist, and then we subsidize junk food, we create a marketplace discrepancy that essentially condemns the poor to nutritional disasters. And when a vastly disproportionate share of those who struggle financially are people of color, we’ve created one of the conditions that, in effect, perpetuates racial health inequality.

The Race Connection

How have conditions been created in which poverty tends to be deeper, and more devastating, in communities of color? Histories of slavery and genocide have been followed by redlining, which has enforced unfavorable loan treatment on people and communities of color. Redlining has also meant systematic denial — by federal government agencies, local governments, and the private sector — of many other services to people and communities of color.

Furthermore, USDA discrimination against Black farmers has led to 93% of all Black farmers in the US losing their land. And tax bases that are dependent on zip codes have kept low-income communities, most of which are also minority communities, entrenched in cycles of intergenerational poverty, with poorly funded schools and health care programs, and higher levels of violence and environmental pollution.

The stark impact of all this is that Black and Hispanic families today have considerably less wealth than white families. The average Black family’s net worth is less than 11% that of the average white family. Hispanic families’ net worth is less than 13% that of white families.

Food Access and Life Expectancy

In lower-income communities, people who manage to make a decent living often have to use up any extra money to tend to the needs of family members who are less well off. Instead of accumulating assets, and passing them on to their children, they are more likely to use them to care for their elders and others in immediate need, and then to die poor.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that poverty, whether linked to racism or not, has on food access. Historically, as white and middle-class workers moved out of inner cities and into the suburbs, grocery stores and supermarkets followed, largely because they could save on overhead costs, sell more expensive and profitable items to a wealthier customer base, and have lower insurance rates.

All of this has a direct impact on health outcomes. If you’re eating poorly, and getting sick, it’s awfully hard to get ahead in life, or to keep getting back up every time life knocks you down.

One telling example is in the comparison of two communities in Boston, Massachusetts. Back Bay is an affluent neighborhood in Boston that has a Whole Foods Market and an abundance of food options available. Life expectancy in Back Bay is close to 90 years. But just a few miles away is the neighborhood of Roxburyone of only two officially designated “food deserts” in the city of Boston. According to the most recent study from the CDC’s “500 Cities” project, Roxbury residents have a life expectancy of under 60 years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Back Bay is mostly white, while Roxbury is predominantly Black.

Food Apartheid

Food desert - empty shopping cart in desert
iStock.com/dial-a-view

Despite the importance of recognizing and working to combat the existence of food deserts, some thought leaders reject the term “food desert” altogether. Black farming activists Leah Penniman and Karen Washington prefer the term “food apartheid.” They argue that real deserts are a naturally occurring phenomenon, while food deserts are rooted in social inequalities. Apartheid, they tell us, refers to a system of segregation and unequal treatment based on skin color, and as such, it better defines a problem that has been precipitated by long-standing discrimination at nearly every level of society — from redlining and housing discrimination to unfair working conditions and lack of access to healthy food.

Some who prefer the term “food apartheid” believe that as long as there are profits to be made hiring from a large pool of vulnerable workers — workers willing to work for very little compensation and without basic protections — there will be some who hold a financial stake in the prevalence of poverty. There are companies that will make more money if they can keep certain communities in a state of distress. So, the argument goes, racism and “food deserts” aren’t an accident — they’re by design.

Note: The debate continues as to which is the more accurate term, “food apartheid” or “food desert.” But for the purpose of sharing in a common dialogue, and given that “food desert” is the term utilized by the USDA, Food Revolution Network is continuing to use it, at least for the time being. 

We All Have a Stake in This

It’s true that food deserts mainly affect people of color and people of low income. But while it may be tempting for those of us who have plenty of food to think of food access as somebody else’s problem, the deeper truth is that we’re all impacted.

In Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He was right. And now, studies are backing it up. An analysis by the Milken Institute found that treating the seven most common chronic diseases, with consideration of losses in productivity, costs the US over a  trillion dollars every year. (The researchers added that even modest reductions in unhealthy behaviors could prevent 40 million cases of chronic illness annually.)

While the impact of poor health in low-income communities falls most heavily on the people living in those communities, it ultimately impacts all of us because the costs of Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance, government-funded health initiatives, lost wages and tax revenue, hospital emergency care for the uninsured, as well as medically-induced bankruptcies, are ultimately pooled and shared collectively. Ill health anywhere drives up costs and drags down quality of life everywhere. So we all have a stake, both for reasons of morality and compassion, and for bottom line, self-interested financial considerations in turning this around.

But is there hope?

Yes. And often, the very communities that have been impacted the most by a problem have the greatest motivation, and the best insight, for finding solutions.

Grassroots Change

Organic vegetables in a box
iStock.com/Filkina Natalia

Some solutions start small. Endea Woods of Boardman, Oregon, is a mother of seven. When she was raising her family, they lived far from grocery stores, and money was tight. They lived in an environment that would, in her words, “make anyone starve.” Her solution? Grow a garden! Cultivated with compost, the garden not only kept her family fed; it helped her whole clan to stay robustly healthy. She remembers, though, that at times, she was challenged to harvest enough veggies for cooking because her kids loved to eat straight from the garden!

Ron Finley’s Gangsta Garden

But sometimes, even growing food can be controversial. In 2011, LA-based food justice activist, Ron Finley, got sick and tired of having to travel 45 minutes to get real food. So he decided to grow some himself. He turned the 150-by-10-foot median strip parkway in front of his house into an edible garden, growing food that he freely shared with all passersby. However, this action violated a city ordinance and led to a fine. When Ron refused to pay it, an arrest warrant was issued. Ron fought back and ultimately won in court. And his fame as the “gangsta gardener” was born.

Today, Ron’s TED talk about his journey has been seen by more than four million people. In 2016, when he was threatened with eviction from his rented home, a global GoFundMe campaign raised enough money for the nonprofit Ron Finley Project to buy it.

Now, Ron’s gardening has expanded far beyond the median in front of his home, providing a backyard garden shared by hundreds of family, friends, neighbors, and interested groups. Last time I talked with him, Ron was growing oranges, pears, pomegranates, papaya, sugar cane, almonds, rosemary, artichokes, chard, flowering celery, Mexican marigolds, red Russian kale, mint, sweet potatoes, blackberries, fennel, plums, bananas, Christmas lima beans, sunflowers, volunteer Green Zebra tomatoes, apples, red dandelions, corn, nasturtiums, and apricots. You can follow his gardening journey on Instagram at @ronfinleyhq.

Ron still shares his harvest freely with the community. Sometimes neighbors stop by in the middle of the night for a snack. Ron feeds the hungry and brings real food to the people who need it most. But he’s growing a lot more than vegetables. The way he sees it, he’s helping to grow the very fabric of community itself.

And he’s not the only one.

Michigan Urban Farming

In central Detroit, Michigan, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative has created an “agrihood” that provides free, fresh produce to 2,000 households within two square miles of the farm. It also supplies food to local markets, restaurants, and food pantries. This agrihood is one of many rays of hope springing up in Detroit. In the year 2000, there were an estimated 80 farms within Detroit’s city limits. By 2017 there were more than 1,500, with the city’s urban farmers producing an estimated 400,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for city residents each year.

Community gardens have become increasingly popular in both smaller neighborhoods and larger metropolitan areas. The idea is to collaboratively share an open space to grow a healthy food garden, where members contribute to its tending. These have been shown to improve food security in lower-income areas, and can be set up in vacant lots, community centers, housing projects, churches, rooftops, and even public parks — basically, anywhere there’s open space. Find out more about how to start one here.

Large Scale Change: From Food Deserts to Food Oases

Like seeds sprouting after a good rain, all over the world, people are organizing and creating innovative solutions to provide great access to healthy food. Here are some that inspire me:

1. Little Free Pantries

Some communities have created free, library-like mini food pantries, where you can donate food, personal care, and household items you don’t need. Or you can take items you do need. In LA and other large cities like Miami, you can also find upcycled community refrigerators, where neighbors can share and store food with each other.

2. SÜPRMARKT

SÜPRMARKT is a low-cost organic grocery pop-up servicing low-income communities in Los Angeles. It provides healthy food via subscriptions, with groceries available for either pick-up or delivery. They also have a One-for-One program, which allows you to donate a gift subscription to a family in need.

3. The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFPCGP)

CFPCGP has been in existence since 1996. They partner with WhyHunger.org and work to create community food projects that help low-income communities become more self-sufficient by evaluating strengths and creating systems that promote the ability of local residents to be self-reliant around their food needs.

4. Wholesome Wave

Driven by the conviction that people in poverty want to feed their families well, Wholesome Wave was designed to use private funds to demonstrate what might happen if public funds were spent differently. Users shop with SNAP (food stamp) dollars as they normally would. But when buying fruits and vegetables, they get their purchasing power doubled in the form of tokens or coupons called “nutrition incentives.” The program has been found to be highly effective, reaching 500,000 people in nearly every state, and unlocking many millions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables annually. This not only helps the poor and the elderly to buy more fresh, locally grown, organic produce, but it also helps the farmers to sell more of their harvests.

Because SNAP recipients spend close to $100 billion per year on food, the implications for food systems change are considerable. Today, SNAP households spend about 10% of their food dollars on the cheap calories provided by sugary drinks. Programs like Wholesome Wave can change that, helping low-income families to have access to and afford far healthier food.

Already, Wholesome Wave has successfully lobbied to get $250 million included in the US Farm Bill, earmarked for expanding affordable access to fruits and vegetables for low-income Americans. You can find out more and support their good work here.

5. Soul Fire Farm

Soul Fire Farm is an organization that’s been working to “uproot racism in the food system” since 2010. You can find out more about them and check out their many resources to support systemic change here. Although their on-site programming is closed due to COVID-19, you can still support their work by donating to their fundraiser to expand farmer training and food sovereignty programming with an official commercial facility. Read my interview with Soul Fire Farm’s founder, Leah Penniman, here.

Building a Brighter Future

Customer buying greens at supermarket
iStock.com/FG Trade

Putting an end to food deserts will take more than just plopping health food stores into low-income communities. It will take education, economic empowerment, access, and, ultimately, a concerted effort to address intergenerational cycles of poverty and racism. But does that mean it’s all too overwhelming, and we should just give up? Absolutely not!

One person cannot do everything. But we are each responsible for the choices we make. And when we make conscious choices to be part of the solution, we bring more alignment into our own lives — and more hope into our world.

I believe that hope is, in reality, not so much a noun as a verb. It doesn’t come from sitting on the sidelines, and thinking things will get better. It comes from the actions we take and the choices we make.

We know more now than ever before about the impact of food on public as well as personal health. We know more about the root causes of poverty and racial health inequalities. And in an increasingly informed and interconnected world, we have the opportunity to build a future that is brighter than our past.

What We Must Do

As individuals, we can grow and support community gardens and the people who are behind them. We can support local farms and businesses that treat their employees fairly and that invest in our communities. We can get informed and tell others about food deserts. And we can support companies and political leaders that invest in a more equitable world.

As a society, we can work towards an end to discrimination in housing, employment, and school quality. We can invest in healthy school meal programs, and in food bank initiatives that provide healthy options to the families they serve. And we can support and expand programs that provide healthy food purchasing power to low-income communities — and that incentivize retailers and restaurants bringing healthy, culturally appropriate food to the communities that need it most.

And we can put an end to government subsidies of junk food. If we are going to subsidize anything, shouldn’t it be healthy food? Instead of driving down the price of high fructose corn syrup and factory-farmed meat, at taxpayer expense, how about if we subsidize collards, carrots, avocados, and apples?

The struggle for justice is as old as tyranny itself. And it lives on today, in the lives of each and everyone one of us. But one step at a time, and one bite a time, we can help to shift the course of things. I believe that we really can build a world with healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all. When that day comes, humanity will have taken a great step towards fulfilling its higher calling. And to get there… we’ve got some work to do.

Tell us in the comments:

  • Do you know of any other organizations that are working to end food insecurity and shift away from food deserts?
  • Have you ever participated in a community garden or grown your own fruits and vegetables at home?

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Feature image: iStock.com/Kwangmoozaa