It seems counterintuitive, but many families live in a desert in the middle of the city. While some cities are located in the arid, hot variety of desert, there are also food deserts in many major American cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” While there are often many bodegas, convenience stores, and fast food places in these areas, they area devoid of grocery stores and farmer’s markets, making it nearly impossible for their residents to access fresh food.
Living in a food desert and relying upon convenience foods for sustenance increases the risk of obesity and obesity related health problems. It is more costly, both due to the actual cost of food, and the cost of the associated health problems. Additionally, food deserts disproportionally effect minority and low-income families; 8% of African-American families live within a mile of a grocery store, compared to 31% of white families. Overall, 23.5 million people live in areas over one mile from a grocery store.
However, in spite of the disheartening statistics, there are creative solutions in many areas. One solution, in Chester, PA, is a non-profit grocery store. In addition to their already low prices, Fare & Square provides SNAP users with a discount, so that their food budget can stretch further.
While the solutions to food deserts seems fairly simple and obvious, build more grocery stores and/or encourage more farmers’ markets in low-income areas, the reality it is more complex. In the past several years, many new or expanded grocery stores have been built, and the federal government has allocated funds to ameliorate food deserts. However, in some areas, these expanded markets have not had the effect that many were hoping.
According to Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for many people, shopping in a grocery store and preparing healthy food is not part of their routine. Perhaps they do not know what kinds of food to buy or how to make them, or perhaps despite the new, bigger stores, financially, fresh food continues to be out of reach.
As for Mr. Cummins’ observation that some people may not know how to prepare fresh foods, there are several programs which teach healthy and budget friendly cooking to low-income individuals and families. Cooking Matters, a project of Share Our Strength, provides hands on cooking classes and nutritional support to individuals and families who are facing food insecurity. During their six-week courses, participants learn everything from knife skills to budgeting techniques to reading ingredient labels.
Food deserts continue to pose a major problem to low-income families. For some, simply providing a store is not enough; programs are needed to support families in all aspects of healthy eating, including preparation, storage, and shopping. Hopefully, there will be more creative solutions to food deserts to help all families enjoy fresh and healthy foods in their diet.