What is a food desert?
What do you think about when you hear about a “food desert?” No, it’s not a desert filled with food. Rather, a food desert is a term that refers to an impoverished area that has little to no access to healthy food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts occur when there is either a huge lack of supermarkets and grocery stores that sell fresh and healthy foods or an abundance of low budget families that are unable to afford good food. This can hurt the populations in food deserts by causing obesity, diabetes, and other health-related diseases (3).
In the early 1990s, the term “food desert” was first introduced in the United Kingdom to examine food shortages and describe geographical areas with limited access to grocery stores. Before the 1950s, rural and urban areas consisted of many local markets. In recent decades, traditional food retailers have become larger and the total number of stores has decreased. This decrease leaves urban populations in the inner cities with the unhealthy food from convenience and liquor stores. In 1996, a British Low Income Project Team defined food deserts as “areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy foods” (3).
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report to Congress requesting the reform of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 to better address the access issues in food deserts. In 2014, USDA released the 2014 Farm Bill. It maintains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for low income families. It also provides $200 million for job training and $100 million to increase fruit and vegetable purchases while authorizing $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to make nutritious food more accessible (1).
Why is it relevant?
Food deserts contribute to an increase in obesity rates, diabetes rates, and cardiovascular disease as a result of having very little or no access to fresh foods. Understanding the cause of these health-related diseases in populations is crucial to public health (4).
Moreover, the location of food deserts has been associated with residential segregation, poverty, and neighborhood deprivation. Analyzing these geographical patterns can help us find ways to find and help those stuck in poverty-ridden neighborhoods (3).
Pros and cons
Someone looking at food deserts in an overly optimistic lens could spot out certain pros in the form of having fast food, snacks and soda, and affordable food prices for days. Realistically speaking, however, there are no real pros for food deserts.
On the other hand, some cons associated with food deserts include increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, lack of nutritious intake can lead to premature death overall (4).
Where are food deserts found?
Food deserts are more prevalent in the United States, with the worst appearing in highly populated places like New Orleans, Chicago, and Atlanta. Food deserts are also commonly found in places where supermarkets are more than a mile away and people don’t have a car to reach them. As a matter of fact, urban populations have been found to be more affected by this phenomenon.
Worst food deserts
New Orleans, LA – After Hurricane Katrina, the lack of access to healthy foods worsened. There are only 20 grocery stores in New Orleans, but there were 30 before Katrina. This makes the average grocery store serve about 16,000 people, which is twice the national average (5).
Chicago, IL – It is estimated that some 600,000 people live in food deserts in Chicago (5). On average in a black neighborhood in Chicago, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as far as the nearest fast food restaurant (2).
Atlanta, GA – The prevalence of food deserts in Atlanta seems to be associated with class as well as racial segregation. Researchers found that there are four time as many supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods than in black neighborhoods (5).
- Collart, A., Coble, K. (2014). Highlights of the Agricultural Act of 2014 for Specialty Crops. Retrieved from http://www.choicesmagazine.org/choices-magazine/theme-articles/deciphering-key-provisions-of-the-agricultural-act-of-2014/highlights-of-the-agricultural-act-of-2014-for-specialtry-crops
- Goldschein, E. (2011, Oct 12). 10 American Food Deserts Where It Is Impossible To Eat Healthily. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/food-deserts-urban-2011-10?op=1
- Organics, S. (2016). Food Deserts: What Are They?. Retrieved from http://successorganics.com/food-deserts-what-are-they/
- Prendergast, M. (2015, Jul 23). The Shocking Truth About Food Deserts and American Obesity. Retrieved from https://spoonuniversity.com/lifestyle/obesity-rates-food-deserts/
- Staff, N. (2012). America’s Worst 9 Urban Food Deserts. Retrieved from http://newsone.com/1540235/americas-worst-9-urban-food-deserts/