The average inner city neighborhood has one. Rural communities have them, too. How do you know if you’re living in a food desert?
Throughout my childhood, I vividly remember my grandmother and I walking into C-Town (later re-named “Price Choice”) supermarket on Southern Boulevard and East 180th Street in the West Farms neighborhood of The Bronx, where I was born and raised. My grandmother would usually approach the produce section where she’d examine fruits and vegetables, oftentimes for several minutes in an attempt to get to some of the more decent looking produce. If we couldn’t find what we were looking for at C-Town, we’d simply ride the bus further along Southern Boulevard to Prospect Avenue arriving at Western Beef, a haven of fresh produce, meat, and poultry along with plenty of ethnic products. We’d follow this ritual into my adulthood, until I began to question the reasons we went through all these hoops to find good, quality food. I didn’t really understand what she was looking for. Over the past several years, as I’ve actively pursued issues around health and nutrition, specifically regarding urban areas, I’ve come to understand why .
The West Farms area is one of the many areas in the U.S. riddled with the classic symptoms associated with food deserts. Food deserts are areas where access to healthy food choices is unavailable or difficult. Living in a food desert subjects the people living in them to severe challenges. Among them are: poverty, an array of serious health conditions and disease, limited financial resources, and a lack of information and education to pursue healthy food and decisions around healthy living.
The existence of food deserts is due in major part to the “white flight” of the 1960s and 1970s, when, according to the National Housing Institute, white, middle-class families left urban centers for homes in the suburbs, supermarkets fled with them, taking jobs, tax revenues and their offerings of healthy, affordable foods. To date, more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Food deserts are classified in a variety of ways, but most often there are simply three concepts or “symptoms” of “access” that will help you determine if you live in a food desert: physical, finances, and mental attitude or food knowledge.
Here are three questions and helpful identifiers.
- Is there adequate “physical access” to a supermarket that offers quality food?
People living in a food desert may be limited to reaching a supermarket in a number of ways, especially by transport. In rural areas, the average person must own a car to reach a supermarket that sells quality foods and produce. Physical access may also be a challenge to the sick, disabled, or elderly where highways and overpasses are the only means to reach their destination.
- Do finances make it difficult to buy healthy food?
If an individual or family is financially unable to commute to shops, this poses an obstacle to their health. One important factor to also note here is a major socioeconomic limitation, such as low income. Poverty stricken families who depend on public assistance have a limited food stamp budget according to family size—a great challenge to maintain a family— especially when the produce must be replaced throughout the month. A lack of cooking facilities and inadequate storage space also contribute to this problem.
Additionally, consumers of different incomes tend to gravitate toward one area of a supermarket upon entry. Financially stable consumers tend to have a better knowledge around healthy foods and will most often begin with the fresh produce area, which is conveniently located at the point of entry. Inner city supermarkets typically welcome their consumers with a makeshift wall of sugary boxed cereals and artificially flavored beverages and snacks. In a food desert, it is also typical for the produce area to be poorly stocked, poorly lit, and due to the owner’s limited budget or to save on routine maintenance costs, sprinkler systems necessary to keep the produce watered and fresh are often omitted. This forces the shopper to either skip out on an otherwise healthy alternative, or as can be expected, turn away from the unappealing and unattractive produce section altogether.
- What is the “mental attitude” toward good health?
Mental attitude toward good health undoubtedly goes hand in hand with food knowledge. Limited or no information around proper nutrition contributes to poor health. Many supermarkets serving affluent areas such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Mrs. Green’s Market (to name a few), bear placards above their fresh produce sections containing information about health benefits, flavor facts, where the produce is grown, and whether the item is in season. With the wealth of food knowledge available in these well served communities, the challenge is not finding quality food, rather, it is deciding how much produce a consumer actually wants to buy!
Food-coops are a growing trend in gentrified neighborhoods. Food-coops being introduced in these areas sell all natural food and enhance a community’s social responsibility. They require paid membership and their members, or “owners”, may have to work at the co-op a couple to a few hours per month. Gentrified neighborhoods are those undergoing a demographic change that aims to economically stimulate poverty stricken areas by appealing to high income earners. Gentrification is currently a highly debated and controversial issue because the investors in said communities are charged with trying to drive out low to moderate income individuals and families from their homes and neighborhoods. As a result, supermarkets that once offered affordable ethnic foods are beginning to raise their prices, and arguably catering to the new affluent demographic.
In underserved communities, further, healthy foods generally carry a negative stigma. This is due to the fact that farmers, companies or individuals responsible for their production may not have the budget to compete with major corporations that spend billions of advertising dollars each year to targeted demographics. To the large corporations’ credit, their billions are invested strategically. Through extensive market research, large corporations know exactly which consumers are watching their commercials, when they’re watching, and utilize techniques such as nifty supermarket “savings cards.” These entities also know about consumer behaviors through barcode scans and smart technology increasingly used in malls throughout the U.S. It is through this very marketing that a superficial loyalty is forged between consumers living in food deserts and the all too easily accessed and convenient fast food chains, along with an instilled influence toward expensive, artificially chemicalized, packaged foods.
The Obama Administration is being proactive about ridding our nation of food deserts. The nation’s first campaign of its kind was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama when she announced her Let’s Move campaign to solve not only the epidemic of childhood obesity, but also close the gap in underserved communities so that they too will have access to affordable healthy food. You can visit http://www.letsmove.gov/accessing/index.html, where you will find the following important introductory information:
“…a new partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services which will invest $400 million a year to provide innovative financing to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options. Grants will also help bring farmers markets and fresh foods into underserved communities, boosting both family health and local economies. Through these initiatives and private sector engagement, the Administration will work to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years.”
In case you’re wondering about how this affects ethnic grocery stores and bodegas, this initiative will enhance the quality of foods being sold. Hopefully, it will also serve to regulate the pricing at bodegas since the individuals and families relying on them usually pay a higher retail price.
The more information people have about healthy versus harmful foods, the better equipped they are to practice healthy living. Though this is a small piece of the food desert pie, the Obama Administration’s target of seven years is an ambitious goal, yet a likely achievable one. It will in the words of Hillary Clinton “take a village,” as a community and we can all be proactive in small steps. Sharing knowledge is free, and a first step in raising someone’s awareness to this issue, so please pass this on. We are all responsible for being problem solvers toward securing our country’s healthy future.
If you find these conditions in your area and believe they are unacceptable, why not contact the Obama Administration? Be an agent of positive change in your community, your life, y Cuídate, Latino!
“Can America’s Food Deserts Bloom?” by Gray, Steven, Time.com, May 2009 http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1900947,00.html
‘Food Desert’ as defined by Wikipedia
‘Food Cooperative’ as defined by Wikipedia
Let’s Move Campaign as launched by First Lady Michelle Obama http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/02/24/taking-food-deserts
Healthy Foods, Strong Communities, Flournoy, Rebecca, National Housing Institute http://www.nhi.org/online/issues/147/healthyfoods.html
by Jeanelle Roman