The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says a “food desert” is typically found in an urban neighborhood or rural town with poor access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.
A food desert has food, but it’s not nutritious food and it costs a lot.
Mari Gallagher helps us picture a food desert in her eloquent description from a 2010 TEDx presentation: “A food dessert is a large and isolated geographic area that clusters and has no distant mainstream grocery stores .. in a food desert you’ll be hard pressed to find fresh chicken or strawberries .. We did some work and met nine-year-old kids in Alabama who had never seen strawberries or grapes.”
Market Makeovers in Los Angeles describes a food desert this way: “Sure there’s stuff to eat, but it’s probably not food you should be eating regularly (plenty of calories, few nutrients). Fast food signs dot the landscape, but you can drive for miles without seeing a healthy place to eat. There are few supermarkets and a lot of land in between them. Residents buy food and drinks from local markets selling unhealthy stuff with an unnaturally long shelf life. Junk food ads surround you. As a result, folks are overfed but undernourished, prone to overweight, obesity, diabetes and chronic illnesses.”
Look beyond cities for a food desert.
Not all food deserts are found in big cities — not by a long shot. Steph Larsen writing at Grist notes that, “The paradox of our unhealthy food system is that many rural towns lack healthy food access, even as the food we eat is grown in rural places … When most people hear “food desert,” they think of places like West Oakland, Detroit, or inner-city Chicago. Personally, I think of places like Harrison, a Nebraska town of 279 people.”
USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income. Gallagher says, roughly 100,000 single women with children live in the Chicago food desert, but — surprisingly — not everybody living in the food desert is poor (12,000 households in the Chicago food desert earn over $100,000/year).
The following over-arching policy recommendations are from Mari Gallagher.
• Use neutral data to effect change in high-impact sites (for example, consider how much life can we gain by eliminating food deserts?).
• When public resources are involved, let’s understand mathematically how much each project (community gardens, local farms, etc.) matters and support a given project based on a predetermined objective (for example, public health).
• Understand that the first-line defense against malnutrition in the U.S. is the Food Stamp program, but, in food deserts, the places available to shop for food (e.g. liquor stores, party stores, etc.) do not offer nutritious food.
• Big Ideas: Raise standards, enforce the standards, use carrots and sticks.
The National Council of La Raza has noted that Latino children are the hungriest in America—making up almost 40% of the one million children living in hunger.⁴ Ironically, they also have one of the highest risks for obesity.” Learn more at NCLA’s factsheet titled, The Food Environment and Latino’s Access to Healthy Foods, as part of their 2010 Profiles of Latino Health. The report can be downloaded here.
Suggested Solutions from La Raza
1. Adding supermarkets in Latino neighborhoods – which expands the availability of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products, low-fat milk, etc.
2. Government financing initiatives encourage corner stores to expand their offerings of healthy affordable foods
3. Tax credits, zoning incentives, funding, technical assistance, or equipment – can spur supermarkets and farmers’ markets to locate in underserved areas.
Who is turning a food desert to a food oasis?
Many types of actions can improve food access, local markets and community health, says Gallagher.Consider community gardens, exercise programs, corner store improvements, new grocery store development projects, and increased healthy food options at existing retail stores.
In Chicago, food deserts in the city are defined as census tracts located more than one mile from a food retailer larger than 10,000 square feet, not including gas stations and fast food restaurants. The city’s two-year progress report on combating food deserts can be found here.
In Detroit, Tom Philpott writes, “And in the fashion of a city truly after my own heart, food has emerged as the key motivating force of Detroiters’ efforts to re-imagine their town as a thriving, livable place.”
For years, Columbus’ (OH) east side has been a relative “food desert,” a low-income part of town where access to supermarkets and fresh produce is limited. But on Saturday, August 10, the Near East Side Cooperative Market, a member-owned grocery in Olde Town East, opened.
Wal-Mart has announced that a new store is coming to a food desert in Kansas City. The last neighborhood grocery store in the largely Hispanic neighborhood left nearly ten years ago.
Do you live in or near a food desert?
An interactive “food access” map created by the Economic Research Service of the USDA offers a tool for mapping food deserts and exploring access to health and affordable foods nationwide. By clicking on the map, users can pull up a summary and i-depth data on food access indicators by census track.