One of my regular readers asked me to do a post about Food Deserts.
Market Makeovers, which seeks to ameliorate food deserts, defines them as such:
“Food desert” is a term that describes geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are either totally absent or inaccessible to low-income shoppers. Though these may be located in the vicinity, they remain unavailable to low-income residents because of high prices and inadequate public transit.
Food deserts don’t mean that there’s no food available, just a lack of access to healthy food – namely fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy. By their very nature, these products are prone to spoiling and don’t do well on convenience store shelves. So, in communities where convenience stores and fast food restaurants are the main sources of food, there’s often a lack of access to these healthy foods (at least at an affordable price at an accessible distance).
I live in an area (downtown Akron, OH), that some people may consider a food desert. The local grocery store went out a few years ago and has not been replaced. My neighborhood is mixed, racially and socioeconomically. For people like me, the drive to a grocery store isn’t a problem. But, I suspect that a lot of my neighbors, especially the poorer ones, don’t have cars. And, for them, the lack of access to a local grocery store is probably a real problem.
People in food deserts are often obese and malnourished at the same time. As Newsweek explains: “the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly… Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good.” (From Newsweek’s wonderful piece What Food Says About Class In America.) And, even if we put a grocery store on every corner, people would still buy processed food – because it’s cheap, and convenient, and fast.
Talking about (and solving) food deserts is complicated. It involves so many other problems like urban decay and agricultural subsidies. And, the solutions are complicated, too. Things like farmers markets and food co-ops can help, but there are bigger, societal problems to. Many of the winning proposals in Slate’s “Time to Trim Childhood Obesity” idea contest address some of the underlying issues. Personally, I like the one about incentivizing people on food stamps to buy healthier food by making their food stamp “dollars” stretch farther on fresh foods than processed ones.