Food Deserts and Accessible Food PolicySome Americans may think of going to the grocery store to purchase their weekly fruits and vegetables as somewhat of an annoying chore. However, for large parts of the United States (both urban and rural), purchasing fresh food is more of an inaccessible privilege than a nuisance. Imagine a setting in which it is impossible to find a grocery store – or even a bodega with any type of unprocessed food – within miles of where entire communities of people are living. That scenario is a constant reality for some families in low-income families (Lewis 2009); having to live off of unhealthy, processed food is more than just every day life for people and families in these locations, and it's challenging their health without many realistic prospects of change being offered.
Definition and Explanation of Food Deserts
These areas of land without proper access to fresh foods are called “food deserts”. However, not every produce-lacking location falls under this title; the situation has to be more extreme. Jennifer Wehunt states in the Chicago Magazine article “The Food Desert” (2009) that “A cluster of blocks without a corner grocery doesn’t by itself warrant the label; [a food desert is] an entire neighborhood, or a cluster of neighborhoods, without a mainstream grocery store – such as a Jewel, a Treasure Island, or an Aldi [all common Chicago grocery store chains]”. The concept of physical access is one that makes up the biggest issue regarding the existence of food deserts; if people cannot physically get to grocery stores, they will default to what is around them (Lewis 2009). In the case of food deserts, “what's around” means highly processed food and drink. “Day to day, residents must leave their neighborhoods for basics such as raw meat and fresh vegetables” (Wehunt 2009) – and seeing as “an estimated 64,000 households in food deserts don’t have cars” (Extra 2009), sometimes the only way to get groceries is via public transportation, which can be an ugly process and further deter shopping for fresh food.
So why are there locations that do not have grocery stores within a few miles, or at least easy access to them? One answer to this issue lies in the drive of big businesses themselves. Grocery store chains rely on demand for their products, and are priced accordingly for fiscal gain. Even if there is a demand for the food around, a lot of times low-priced produce at chain grocery stores still isn't at a low enough price to be incorporated into a low-income family's dinner on a regular basis, suggesting that another reason food deserts exist besides physical limitations are financial limitations. (Gray 2009)
In many situations grocery stores that are present in food deserts do not accept food stamps; an essential for some families. (Bregel 2009) In Urban Food Deserts Cut Healthy Choices, Emily Bregel (2009) states,
In the five regions of the county with the highest rates of use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, nearly 90 percent of the food retailers that accept food stamps are "fringe food" outlets such as gas stations and convenience stores that rarely offer healthy options such as fresh fruit and vegetables, the report from the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies found. Countywide, the figure is 70 percent.
Because larger chain grocery stores often underestimate the buying power of populations with food stamps (Bregel 2009), these stores are often not opened in low-income neighborhoods, thus creating a food desert. The concept of the financial limitations present within food deserts has also influenced the actualization of implementing more locally-owned grocery stores. (Gray 2009)
The amount of people within food deserts isn't small, either. “An estimated 633,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts”, states Chicago's Extra (2009). Out of those 633,000 food desert residents, 109,000 are also single mothers (Wehunt 2009). When considering these statistics, one must also consider ways in which these numbers may or may not be concrete. These numbers may be lacking those who live on the “fringe” of a food desert and may have gone uncounted; also the number of children within these communities are most likely what make up the bulk of the numbers, and because they still have many years to grow up, could prove to perpetuate the effects of a food desert. (Wehunt 2009)
However, even with an undeniable demand for food, when a local grocer decides to open shop in one of these locations, there is no guarantee that they will be able to support themselves or even turn a profit. Steven Gray of TIME Magazine explains that “the supermarket industry suffers from especially tight profit margins and is thus particularly risk-averse, so supermarkets' entry into low-income neighborhoods has been slow.” (2009)
One example given by Gray (2009) is of a locally owned grocery store on the south side of Chicago, IL. Even though the founder/owner Karriem Beyah has been in business for a significant amount of time, he states that he has “not made a profit” on the store so far. Beyah feels that his store is helping to mend the problems presented by food deserts in the south side of Chicago, however, it is clear that one grocery store will not solve this area's lack of fresh food accessibility. (Gray 2009)
Consequences of Food Deserts
A food desert can impact a community in a number of ways, none of which are beneficial to the community itself. In an urban setting, the desert perpetuates itself by driving away the prospects of chain grocery stores. There are a number of factors that make neighborhoods stable, and in many ways, communities in food deserts that lack these factors tend to flounder as a result (Wehunt 2009).
One important question to consider is how the lack of accessible foods impacts the lives and health of the communities inside of these food deserts. It has been found that in communities where food deserts exist, education and implementation of classes regarding food, nutrition, cooking, and eating is extremely low (if it exists at all). (Extra 2009). Natalie Pfister, the Farm Director of Uncommon Ground (a rooftop farm in the north-side neighborhood of Rogers Park, Chicago) states that a lack of knowledge is severely missing from the lives of those living in food deserts - “The questions that we get when we give tours lets me know that the kids in our public school systems are not being taught about food or health in any real way...” (Pfister, N., personal communication, December 10th, 2009)
Obesity is one of the largest side effects of food deserts. It is almost self-explanatory that if there are no affordable, fresh, vegetables around within a reasonable amount of space, people usually will not choose to eat them. Gray explains that “people eat what is convenient and affordable — and if it's fat-heavy fast food, that's what they'll chow down on.” (2009)
Obesity is one of the side effects that is prevalent through both urban food deserts and food deserts in rural parts of America. Joe Savrock from Pennsylvania State University's College of Education states that tn a study conducted by Kai Shaft of Pennsylvania State University's Center on Rural Education and Communities, it is suggested that “Community factors characteristic of some rural areas may make children in those locales more susceptible to obesity”. (2006) Shaft reinforces the bridge between accessibility and food choices - “The food choices that people make are limited to what is available to them,” he said. “In areas where there are limited options for purchasing food from full-scale grocery outlets, research shows that there is a higher risk of overweight and obesity. And that’s what we’re seeing among rural children in Pennsylvania.” (Savrock 2006) Penn State's study also found that there was a significant link between the socioeconomic status of the children and school at large and the amount of obesity cases present within the schools.
Obesity has already been presented as somewhat of an “epidemic” among school aged children and food deserts have been presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as direct causes of this problem. (Gray 2009) However, even though obesity in American youth “increased to 16.3% in 2006, from 5% in 1980”, obesity has been shown to be more prevalent in less privileged socioeconomic communities (such as the ones within food deserts). “Some 28% of non-Hispanic black females between ages 12 and 19 are obese, as are about 20% of Mexican-American females”, whereas “the statistic for non-Hispanic white females in the same age group is 14.5%”(Gray 2009)
Other health problems
Jennifer Wehunt (2009) presents a look at how the lack of fresh food in food deserts could play a huge role not only in external health (obesity, choice of diet, etc.) but also long-term internal factors:
“...among those living in neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food, ten out of every 1,000 people die from cancer, as opposed to fewer than seven per 1,000 in neighborhoods with the best food availability. The comparison is even bleaker when it comes to deaths from cardiovascular disease: 11 per 1,000 in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, compared with fewer than six per 1,000 among the best off.”
These issues are especially important to think about when considering the extreme lack of health care present within communities with very little socioeconomic privilege (Landsberg & Rock 2008).
National Changes Regarding Food Accessibility
The prevalence of articles and studies published after the year 2000 regarding food deserts and food accessibility suggests that the recognition of food deserts as a social problem is a relatively new concept. Due to the newness of the definition of food deserts, there has not been much legislative action taken in the past. Natalie Pfister believes that “There needs to be better communication and better connection between city government institutions...and small local farms...More funding for these types of programs would be very beneficial, and better legislation around distribution is where it needs to start.” (Personal communication, Dec. 10, 2009) That said, these types of plans might now be a sustained reality instead of a distant hope.
There is currently a bill that was introduced on June 26th, 2009 that directly affects businesses within food deserts. H.R.3100 - Food Desert Oasis Act of 2009 would “grant certain tax benefits” to “qualified food desert businesses” in an effort to encourage them to start/maintain shops offering fresh food within food deserts. (Open Congress 2009) A “food desert business” is a “wholesale or retail business that derives at least 25% of its gross receipts from the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables” - so should the Food Desert Oasis Act pass, there would be a large incentive to solve the problem of food deserts that does not currently exist for these business owners.
Other Changes Regarding Food Accessibility
Many U.S. counties and cities have seen changes in the way that individual families and people have chosen to live their lives in urban and rural situations, as well. In her article for the Denver Post titled “Turning 'Food Desert' Green”, Colleen O'Connor explains how some food-desert communities are turning towards urban farming to solve the problem of the lack of fresh food (2009). O'Connor states that because “there's no access to fresh produce - no nearby grocery store.... the idea of being able to grow and distribute fresh produce in this particular part of town is so encouraging for the residents.” (2009)
However, O'Connor also mentions that zoning within cities may pose a huge problem for those trying to turn part of a food desert into a community garden space; all technology used must be approved through the city council, often posing a delay in the actualization of these gardens and green spaces. (O'Connor 2009) Many urban farmers have found a way around this “hurdle” - growing food on their own roof.
I have had the opportunity to meet with and discuss this issue with two different directors of rooftop farms; Greenpoint Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY (http://rooftopfarms.org) and Uncommon Ground in Chicago, Illinois (http://www.uncommonground.com). Both farms offer a farmers market with affordable produce on their building premises, and both have their gardens/farms directly on the roof of their buildings. What this means is if the owner of the building approves of growing food on the roof, then there is no need to involve the city council.
While Uncommon Ground offers educational opportunities for elementary school children in the Rogers Park/Edgewater neighborhood about the science aspect of growing food, Greenpoint Rooftop Farm offers education on farming via volunteer days on almost every Sunday (except winter). Annie Novak, the farm director at Greenpoint Rooftop Farm, also runs a non-profit program for school-aged children called Growing Chefs (http://www.growingchefs.org) that teaches cooking and DIY-growing skills in order to encourage more demand for local fresh food and education surrounding food.
Extra (2009) quotes farm instructor Melissa Tobias on just how accessible change would be in a food desert with an adequate education on how to grow some of one's own food after explaining ways in which she has been teaching children to grow their own produce:
"Even in a food desert, finding organic, healthy food options can be as convenient as your own back yard. That's the point we are trying to make with the bucket gardens...The students really enjoy planting, tending and cultivating their plants each week. And in the process they learn valuable life skills. And of course, the kids' favorite part - tasting the food they grow themselves."
These farm directors (and farms as a whole) are part of a growing necessity for more fresh food and accessibility. Uncommon Ground and Greenpoint Rooftop Farms have both offered workshops on the basics of how to start gardens even in small spaces like a fire escape; something that would be extremely helpful in introducing more agriculture and fresh-food accessibility to food desert populations.
Future Changes Required and Conclusion
There is no way to over look the present need for action to be taken against eradicating food deserts and the means by which they exist. Because poverty and accessibility are the two main issues from which the other issues discussed (obesity, lack of transportation, lack of policy and legislation) stem, the most changes need to occur within these realms. A large focus regarding education (inside and outside of schools) could make a very large difference in how residents of food deserts not only buy groceries, but impact visibility and awareness as well as influence eating habits as a whole.
“...Exposing kids to where their food comes from helps make a difference not only in how they eat, but also how they view the world around them and how they approach making a difference in that world,” states Pfister. (Personal communication, Dec. 10, 2009) Schafft seconds this notion, explaining how “gaining a better understanding of how community contexts such as food deserts affect public health outcomes is an important step in developing more comprehensive school and community-based interventions to increase the health of rural children.” (Savrock 2006)
Education is not the only way these changes need to be made, however. Visibility is an invaluable resource when it comes to making changes. Pfister also suggests that “[more] gardens will allow an experiential learning to take place within communities in an active way.” (Personal communication, Dec. 10, 2009) More gardens definitely helps residents of any community come together, and with more community cohesion, larger changes can take place.
In the near future, the biggest breakthrough in diminishing and eventually eradicating food deserts would come with passing of H.R.3100 - Food Desert Oasis Act of 2009. Health care changes may also be in order, however H. R. 3100 would be a landmark as far as promoting sustainability not just in gentrified and well-fed parts of the United States, but as a broadcast value. Ideally, with effort from the legislature and community effort backing these changes, the United States could expect to see better education, better nutrition, and fewer food deserts in urban and rural areas countrywide.
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