Continuing the Conversation About Food Deserts
8.21.18 — Join us in getting involved with the conversation about food deserts, the implications of using the term, and possible solutions to limited food access in communities from a personal to policy level.
What is a Food Desert?
Food deserts are areas with limited access to supermarkets or other sources of fresh, nutritious, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food. They exist in urban and rural areas, and are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color. Residents in these neighborhoods may also be challenged by inadequate access to transportation, lower access to education, and higher levels of unemployment.
Although they are called “food deserts,” this doesn’t necessarily mean there is no food at all in these areas. Often times, there are many fast food restaurants, corner stores, liquor stores, and gas stations that provide highly processed foods that do not provide the necessary nutrients for a healthy diet. In fact, living in food deserts increases your likelihood of obesity and diabetes nine and five percentage points respectively, making food deserts a public health issue.
What’s the deal with that term?
The word “desert” is often used by human geographers to describe an area that is lacking in some aspect that is considered to be important for humans to have access to. As a verb, “desert” also meant to abandon something or someone. By the mid-1990’s, the term “food desert” emerged to describe places or situations that restricted residents’ access to nutritious food. While the term was meant to highlight the discrepancies between these areas and areas that had easier access to healthy food, there has been an increasing amount of discourse about the drawbacks to using this term.
For example, some activists and food systems workers use the term “food apartheid,” because unlike most deserts (the Mojave desert, for example), “food deserts” don’t happen naturally. This lack of access to good food is not accidental or coincidental. These food injustices are a result of deliberate private and public resource allocation decisions that exclude resources like healthy food from low-income communities, with communities of color being affected disproportionately. These factors include suburban migration and redlining, budget cuts in public transit, and discriminatory housing & hiring practices. While “food deserts” describe these areas as desolate and void of potential, “food apartheid” can challenge us to think critically about the social inequalities, inspiring us to act.
What’s the solution to food deserts?
So then, the answer seems simple: why don’t we just get grocery stores to move in these areas? Well sometimes, even this doesn’t necessarily fix everything. Studies have shown that even when grocery stores move into areas classified as food deserts, these communities continue to face disparities in health outcomes. It’s clear that there is a bigger problem than geography.
As described by Richard Florida,
“when it comes to food and nutrition, it’s not just that higher income Americans have more money. They benefit even more from higher levels of education and better information about the benefits of healthier eating. Indeed, education accounts for roughly 20 percent of the association between income and healthy eating, according to the study, with an additional 7 percent coming from differences in information about nutrition…enable affluent and educated households to put this nutritional information to use. For one, they simply have more time and resources to devote to their health and well-being. Conversely, lower-income people may simply discount the health advantages of higher-quality food or see some of those foods, like kale or avocado toast (to pick the most obvious examples), as smacking of urban elitism.”
On a basic level, to help increase food security in a community, there needs to be adequate access to healthy food, whether it be through a supermarket, farmers’ market, co-op, community food initiative, and perhaps surprisingly, even a corner store. With many low-income communities already doing a lot of their shopping at corner stores, moving healthy produce into these shops could be a great alternative. Perhaps we will start to see a rise of affordable and healthy fast food restaurants across the nation. However, there is evidence that educational initiatives on healthy eating and cooking need to be paired with physical food access in order to effectively help food security. Policy level interventions could help subsidize healthy foods or harness in-store marketing to promote the purchase of healthy foods.
Some solutions that are already working in communities in the United States include farmers markets that accept EBT, the Market Match Program, non-profit grocery stores and co-ops, produce services that deliver fresh fruits and vegetables, and organizations such as Food Forward that redistribute what would be food waste to food insecure residents.
What can you do to help?
You can click here to see if you live in an area under food apartheid or to locate the nearest area to you. You’re already doing a great step in helping your community by educating yourself about these issues. You can continue work in food security by finding solutions that work within your community, whether it is growing your own food in a backyard garden, working with local convenience stores to get more healthy foods, or teaching your friends and family members new recipes and about the benefits of healthy eating. Some local organizations that are already working with food security in low income communities include Los Angeles Food Policy Council, SUPRMRKT, Food On Foot, Hunger Action L.A., Market Makeovers, Every Table, Slow Food Ventura County, Food Share, and many others. Volunteer, reach outside your comfort zone, talk to your representatives, and speak up for those that cannot speak for themselves.
 Dutko, Paula, et al. “Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts.” USDA.gov, United States Department of Agriculture, Aug. 2012, www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45014/30940_err140.pdf?v=41156.
“The Socio-Economic Significance of Food Deserts.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 29 June 2011, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/the-socio-economic-significance-of-food-deserts.
 Shaw, Hillary John. “The Ecology of Food Deserts .” Core.ac.uk, The University of Leeds School of Geography, Dec. 2003, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/1146142.pdf.
 Florida, Richard. “Stop Blaming Food Deserts for the Nutrition Gap.” CityLab, University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, 22 Jan. 2018, www.citylab.com/equity/2018/01/its-not-the-food-deserts-its-the-inequality/550793
 Corapi, Sarah. “Why it takes more than a grocery store to eliminate a food desert.” PBS, PBS, 3 Feb. 2014, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/takes-grocery-store-eliminate-food-desert
 Conley, Paul. “5 Food Desert Solutions that Seem to be Working.” Food Dive, Food Dive, 31 Oct. 2013, https://www.fooddive.com/news/5-food-desert-solutions-that-seem-to-be-working/188432/