What is a “food desert”?
A term popularized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food desert specifically refers to food insecurity and is defined by a specific list of characteristics, including median family income levels and access to grocery stores. According to the USDA, 23.5 million Americans meet this distinction, including 6.5 million children. The inability to find fresh, affordable food is one that plagues several regions around the country. Low income areas typically suffer the greatest, as unfortunate locations and lack of resources to reach grocery stores comes into play. Not only do residents of food deserts have trouble acquiring food, they are not able to adequately meet their nutrition standards.
How is the U.S. affected?
As mentioned above, a considerable percentage of Americans suffer from being located in food deserts. Half of that 23.5 million are low income families, meaning that even if proximity to fresh food sources isn’t an issue, the cost of food would be prohibitive for these families. Often times, this leads to increased visits to fast food restaurants and convenience stores lacking in nutritious items for meals. This correlates to increased obesity/diabetes rates (U.S. citizens face nearly $190 billion per year in medical costs from obesity – 21% of all medical spending) and cardiovascular disease. In these areas, the death rate from these ailments can be as much as twice that of non-food desert areas.
How do I know if my area is considered a “food desert”?
The USDA has a handy map feature, the Food Access Research Atlas, which allows users to track what distinction an area falls under.
Which areas are being hit the hardest?
In spatial terms, the western half of the United States features larger acreages of food deserts. In terms of population, however, the eastern half of the U.S. is more greatly impacted. This includes dozens of major urban cities (some surprising), including New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis, and various areas of New York/New Jersey.
Rural markets (a rural food desert is defined by a 10-mile marker from food access) tend to be far less populated, but suffer from longer distances between adequate grocery stores and poverty issues that crop up from weaker local economies. Often, these two scenarios go hand-in-hand, because poverty levels can be directly tied to local grocery stores going out of business, resulting in even greater distances between food sources and the consumer.
While many of these areas are working to rectify problems brought about by food deserts, families suffer regardless.
What is the federal government, and for that matter state and local governments, doing to fix this situation?
The number one priority is increasing incentives for businesses to operate in these areas. As strange as this may sound, businesses are many times more profitable in areas where competition is nearby in proximity. Government can influence these decisions by offering financial rewards for chains and small businesses that build new stores in these areas, especially ones that are focused on providing fresh fruits and vegetables. The federal government is doing its part. The Agriculture Act of 2014, also known as the farm bill, addressed some of these concerns by dedicating $125 million per year to improving access to nutritious food.
In fact, through its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, over $500 million has been given in recent years to encourage this bloom of stores. This program is beginning to be mimicked by state and local governments too.
But it takes more than just stores. As Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, states:
“If you think about Kevin Costner in the Field of Dreams — ‘If you build it, they will come’ — I guess that’s the kind of logic model that underpins these interventions. But that doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to do. It can improve perceptions of food access, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a behavior change.”
Larger socioeconomic problems exist that need to be addressed one at a time in order to improve quality of life for all. This is an incredibly tedious, slow process, but one that is necessary for the long term success of our country and our fellow Americans.
Those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy a bountiful nutritious food supply often take for granted the food access issue and how it affects those less fortunate. It is up to us to, at the very least, stay educated on the matter so that we can see it through the eyes of others, and in many cases go above and beyond this by volunteering time and talent to help solve this problem.
How does agricultural production play a role in the solution?
Farmers are doing their part by working hard to increase the food supply (despite there being less farmers than 50 years ago) and ensure that this supply maintains its nutritional value. We can support them in multiple ways:
1) Encourage our youth to join the industry. This is difficult, as starting or even maintaining an existing farm or ranch is costly. Factoring in the current demonization of agriculture by many in the public who have never even taken a step onto a farm, one can see why people are discouraged from entering a profession that is essential for our existence.
2) Fight back against misinformation about agriculture that is making it more difficult for our ag professionals to do their jobs in producing high quality food for an ever-expanding population.
3) Tell your government officials to continue to support the agriculture industry by enacting policies that protect agriculture and make a future in agriculture a viable career choice.
4) Spread the word any way that you can, especially through social media.
What can I do to help eliminate food deserts?
Awareness is an effective and critical tool in any campaign. The more the public knows about food deserts, the easier it will be to mobilize and make a difference.
In a more specific way, you can help by giving donations and volunteer hours to organizations that work towards eliminating food deserts. Do a simple internet search for ‘Food Desert Organizations’, and you will find several worthy groups that need your help.
This is a public health concern that also appeals to our basic human compassion. While many times underreported, it is a major issue in our country that requires a resolution sooner rather than later.