Food deserts in the united states


The Harsh Reality of Food Deserts in America

One of the key components of someone’s risk of poverty is their location. In regards to many aspects of life, location is everything, especially when it comes to the accessibility to food resources. In the United States, many citizens face the risk of going hungry because of their location within a food desert. A food desert is essentially an area in which someone does not have access to a food source, such as a supermarket, nearby. The definition of food deserts differs, though, based upon whether one lives in an

The definition of food deserts differs, though, based upon whether one lives in an urban or a rural setting. In fact, according to a Newsweek article published in 2014, “n urban areas, the U.S Department of Agriculture considers a food desert an area with no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious food options within one mile. In rural America, a food desert is defined as 10 miles or more from the nearest market.” Unfortunately, food deserts are not few and far between, “it’s estimated there are more than 23 million people, more than half of them low-income, living in food deserts.”

A food desert does not simply refer to one’s proximity to a supermarket but one’s access to a food pantry or food-sharing program, as well. Food pantries directly provide food to those in need and survive on donations to a food bank. Continuing the theme of location, one’s access to or standard of food pantry differs based upon their location.

Funding for food pantries typically comes from three sources: local, state and federal; however, according to research in The Journal of Family Social Work, “population density affects how much funding goes toward food pantries. Because rural areas have a lower population density and smaller numbers using the pantries, funding for food programs is also less than in urban areas.” What this means is that those living in a rural area are at a disadvantage as they are not only typically further from food pantries, but they have less available produce and nutritious food to choose from. If a family is unable to access both a grocery store and a food pantry, their risk of food insecurity increases considerably.

In order to eradicate these food-barren areas, there needs to be a greater quantity of food shelters and markets so that people do not have to travel great distances in order to purchase simple household food staples such as bread and cereal. Unfortunately, the only way to expand the number of food resource centers in this country, be it a food market that accepts SNAP, a food bank or a food pantry, the government will have to fund federal food-aid, rather than cut spending.

If the 2017 House budget plan is approved, spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would be cut by more than $150 billion — over 20 percent — over the next ten years. A cut of that degree would negatively impact millions of Americans and lead them to fall deeper into the depths of food insecurity. SNAP would not be the only program to take a hard hit from budget cuts, programs such as Meals on Wheels, and Medicaid would be affected as well. Defunding these programs would almost certainly lead to an increase in food insecurity.

According to Feeding America, 1 in 8 Americans face food insecurity, 13 million of which are children. Despite our status as a global superpower, the United States has some serious work to do in regards to fighting hunger and ensuring food access for all.

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Categories: Hunger & Homelessness Tagged with: Food Deserts

Staying healthy isn’t just about working out and investing in self care. A balanced diet is an incredibly important way to prevent diseases and health issues that could impact you in the long-term. According to the World Health Organization, a healthy diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole proteins, legumes, and beans. This can be easy enough to achieve if you’re shopping correctly at the grocery store.

But what happens if you don’t have access to some of these foods, or a store that sells them? In that case, you’re probably going to eat whatever is available to you, whether it’s healthy or not, something that can have a negative affect on your body. This kind of predicament is known as a food desert, and it’s an issue everyone needs to be aware of.

What exactly is a food desert?

A food desert can be hard to define, but in general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that it’s an area that lacks access to affordable foods that make up a healthy, balanced diet. This usually includes foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole grains, among others. Because people who live in food deserts don’t have a reliable grocery store or farmers market to go to to buy these types of food, they often end up purchasing items at convenience stores or gas stations, where the options are not nearly as nutritious as they should be, or they’re too expensive to afford.

Where are food deserts usually found?

The United States Department of Agriculture says that a place is thought of as a food desert if the area meets certain low-income and low-access thresholds. If there’s a poverty rate of 20% or greater, and at least 500 persons and/or 33% of the population lives more than a mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store, it’s considered a food desert. The latest statistics from 2006 data show that an estimated 13.5 million people in the United States have low access to a proper grocery store, and 82% of them live in urban areas.

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Who is most affected?

In simple terms, the people most affected by food deserts are those who don’t have access to large grocery stores where healthy options are available and affordable. But, of course, it’s more complicated than just where someone lives. There are plenty of people who live in food deserts who also own cars – these people are able to get in their cars and drive to the grocery store, so they have more access. It’s the people who don’t have cars who are more affected, in that case. The USDA shows that about 2.3 million, or 2.2%, of households in the United States who live more than a mile from the grocery store also don’t have access to a car.

Even public transportation doesn’t necessarily make things easier all the time. As Food Empowerment Project points out, people in urban areas who are far from a grocery store may have very limited access to public transportation, or they don’t have the money to take the required buses and/or trains.

Food deserts are also more likely to be found in communities with a high percentage of people of color. Studies have found that wealthy districts can have three times as many supermarkets as more low-income districts have. Other research has shown that white neighborhoods can have about four times as many supermarkets are predominantly black neighborhoods do, and on top of that, the supermarkets in black communities usually have less of a selection.

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There are other factors that make a place a food desert.

While socio-economic status is definitely a big part of what makes a place a food desert to begin with, there are other factors that go into it as well. The USDA says that many places lack large grocery stores because companies just don’t want to build there. There are a lot of reasons they’re avoiding the area: the costs that come with building there (for example, if the rent or price of land is higher), the zoning rules that come with building there, their location in terms of convenient delivery routes, and the crime and security concerns associated with the area. They also take into account the buying habits and demographic and economic characteristics of consumers in the area.

This is all especially true for large supermarkets, which need a lot of land and parking, as well as the ability to accommodate large trucks. This is one of the reasons food deserts can be found in urban areas or very small towns.

Serious negative health consequences come with food deserts.

Research shows that people who live in food deserts often can’t find culturally appropriate food, can’t find food that fits into their dietary restrictions (if they are lactose intolerant, for example), and can’t afford the little healthy food that they do have access to. Because of this, they are essentially forced into eating unhealthy options, like frozen foods, highly processed foods, and fast food. At the end of the day, 55% of people in food deserts are less likely to have a good-quality diet over people who live elsewhere.

Because food deserts mainly affect quality of food over actual access to food, the biggest health concern associated with food deserts has often been obesity, something that comes with eating unhealthy options on a regular basis. Obesity can cause a variety of health issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and mental disorders.

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Food deserts have a particularly negative affect on children as well, who need to have a healthy diet in the first few years of their life in order to develop properly. When a kid has poor nutrition, they can be at risk for obesity and all that comes with it, iron deficiencies, dental cavities, and long-term health effects that go into adulthood, like a higher risk of cancer and high blood pressure.

It’s also important to consider the people in food deserts who have dietary restrictions that can’t be met because of their limited access to supermarkets. These people are often forced into eating food they’re allergic to, which can lead to them being seriously sick and needing emergency treatment.

How can we get rid of food deserts or prevent them from happening in the first place?

Tackling the issue of food deserts is a tough one, but some initiatives are already in place. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative was started in 2010 in an attempt to bring grocery stores and healthier options to food deserts. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move act, which brought salad bars to schools across the country, was also aiding in preventing and getting rid of food deserts.

The CDC also recommends that the people in these communities participate in the efforts by establishing a community garden and/or organizing local farmers markets. Local governments should be improving transportation to get people easier access to the closest supermarkets, and changing the tough zoning codes and taxes that keep businesses away from the area.

It would also help if healthier food was made more affordable. Research has shown that the price of fruits and vegetables increased almost 75% between 1989 and 2005, and at the same time, the price of fatty foods decreased by more than 26%. If healthy food is going to continue to be more inexpensive, it’s still not going to be accessible to low-income shoppers, whether they have access to the grocery store or not.

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Educating people on the importance of eating healthy food is just as important.

Unfortunately, eradicating the problems associated with food deserts isn’t as easy as giving the people who live in them access to supermarkets. A 2018 Chicago Booth study found that giving people in low-income households the same products and prices as people in high-income households reduced nutritional inequality by only 9%.

Some studies have even shown that food deserts do not correlate with obesity. A 2017 study found that improved food access doesn’t show “strong evidence toward enhancing health-related outcomes over short durations.”

So, the answer to food deserts isn’t just about increasing access to supermarkets and healthier food prices. It’s also about educating people on how to eat better. Experts believe that the focus needs to be more on helping people make better personal choices when it comes to food, rather than just giving them access to healthier food.

This is a reminder of how important proper food education is. Access to healthier foods is a good step for food deserts, but making sure people know what they should be buying and eating is even more essential.

Food deserts are not deserts. I repeat, food deserts are not deserts. In fact, food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, is very limited and sometimes nonexistent.

When you think of food deserts, you probably assume residents simply don’t have access to food – like at all. But this is not the case – food desert residents do have access to food, but it’s just unhealthy food. And since these areas are loaded with unhealthy, fatty foods, the obesity rate in food deserts is higher than the rest of the United States. So, what’s the deal?

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About 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts, and nearly half of these food deserts are in low-income, impoverished areas – which makes eating healthy even harder.

Food deserts are scattered across the United States and no region is lacking in food deserts – however, it is clear that the South has more food deserts than the rest of the country. Urban food deserts – food deserts in urban areas – also exist in highly populated places such as New Orleans, Chicago and Atlanta.

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So because of the lack of supermarkets with inexpensive, whole foods, residents in food deserts are left with two unfortunate food options: small convenience stores and fast food joints – and neither of these places provide healthy food.

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Convenience stores sell processed foods, sugary junk and fat laden foods – all of which are major contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic. And fast food restaurants serve high calorie, high fat foods – again, major contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

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Fast food restaurants are surprisingly abundant in many food deserts, particularly in urban food deserts. In fact, people who live in the poorest socio-economic status areas – many of which are food deserts – have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas. Whatttttt?

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So, as a result all of these unhealthy food options there is a high correlation of increased diabetes rates in food deserts. In a study of neighborhoods in Chicago, for example, the death rate as a result of diabetes in food deserts was twice as high as the diabetes death rate in areas with access to large grocery stores – yes, twice as high.

Having so much high calorie, high fat foods available puts food desert residents at a much greater risk for diabetes and other health disease. And what’s worse – once diagnosed, it is even harder for food desert residents to get access to healthy, nutritious, affordable food, and they continue to consume the accessible junk food. And it’s just downhill from there.

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So now compare the above diabetes map to the first one of food deserts – do you see any correlations? Yes, yes you do.

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Seriously, look at those similarities. Scary. Seriously scary.

Researchers are continuing to explore the links between food deserts and health. One study found a connection between the existence of supermarkets and lower obesity rates. Convenience stores, on the other hand, were associated with higher rates of obesity. This isn’t a coincidence, y’all.

But guess what – it takes more than access to supermarkets to end food deserts. Providing access to healthy food does not guarantee behavioral change, unfortunately.

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Of course, access to good, healthy food is the first step. And supermarkets are certainly not the only place that can provide this service. Yay. Farmers’ markets, community food initiatives and neighborhood convenience stores can also provide this service. Yes, convenience stores can also provide healthy, affordable food.

But in order for convenience stores to be an appropriate alternative to large supermarkets, healthy food must be sold regularly. So by getting the right foods into these small stores, the quality of food in food deserts will improve.

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So since supermarkets on their own will not be successful in changing the eating habits of residents of food deserts, what else can be done? Well, we need to take it even further by not only educating individuals about healthy choices, but also providing incentives to buy healthy foods, such as reduced taxes or subsidies.

So what are we doing to help? Well, cities are taking steps towards bringing fresh produce to these deserts. Seattle, for example, is increasing the amount of “pop-up” grocery stores, and New Orleans is slowly introducing an urban agriculture scene.

But in order to end food deserts, you must consider the culture around shopping and eating food – we need to change people’s shopping and eating habits.

Food Deserts in America (Infographic)

According to the American Nutrition Association, food deserts are geographical areas that lack sufficient supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthful, affordable whole foods. Food deserts are generally impoverished areas and they are viewed as a national crisis. Fortunately, nonprofit organizations and government initiatives are in place to provide relief for affected Americans.

Earn your online MSW from Tulane’s School of Social work and find out how you can help fight food deserts.

Food Desert Statistics

As of 2009, about 2.3 million Americans did not own a car and lived over one mile from a supermarket. This figure consists 2.2% of the total households in the U.S. In a 2006 survey, about 500,000 city residents in Chicago were living in food deserts. In New York, a 2009 survey revealed that 750,000 Americans lived in areas where access to healthy food options was difficult.

Challenges Facing People Living in Food Deserts

There are difficulties that affect individuals who live in areas classified as food deserts. Due to the lack of availability of certain foods, many people are unable to satisfy their need to enjoy culturally appropriate food. People who suffer from conditions such as gluten allergies and lactose intolerance also have limited meal options. Healthy, whole foods tend to be more expensive than unhealthful fare. Often small supermarkets and grocery stores in food deserts may show a price variance that makes healthy food less desirable for people who cannot afford them. The time and travel cost of finding healthful food also make fast food a preferable option over prepared meals.

How Food Deserts Affect Health

According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information article, studies show that people who live in neighborhoods where availability of healthy food is lowest are 55% less likely to enjoy good-quality diet compared to those who have better access to healthful food. People who live in neighborhoods availability of healthy food is greater have a 45% reduced incidence of diabetes over a five-year period. The economic environment also affects health. Families that move to non-poor neighborhoods show a significantly reduced body mass index (BMI).

Demographics of People Living in Food Deserts

According to a press release by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, a food desert is an area where 20% of individuals have an income that is at the federal level of poverty or lower in terms of family size or an area where 80% of the median income of the family is at 80% of the median level set for family income of the surrounding area or lower.

Eating in a Food Desert

The SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offers an average of $29 worth of food per week. According to studies, the prices of food are affected by the type and availability of stores in the area. The price of milk, for example, is notably lower at supermarkets than stores that offer limited services. Smaller stores also sell items at higher prices than supermarkets do. Isolated, smaller stores sell at higher prices than non-isolated stores.

These factors impact the buying decisions of individuals since the price is one of the most important considerations when choosing where to buy staple food. For individuals who do not own a car, distance is also a factor. Distance adds to the cost of acquiring food as well – the transportation from a food desert to a supermarket can cost from $5 to $7.

Government Initiatives for Improving Nutrition in Food Deserts

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative was announced in 2010. The goal is to make grocery stores and retailers selling healthy food more accessible to underserved urban and rural areas across America. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, small retailers, farmer’s markets, corner stores, and grocery stores that sell health food will be equipped for this effort.

The Let’s Move! campaign, also launched in 2010 by former first lady Michelle Obama, aims to provide healthier fare for young children. Salad Bars to Schools, for example, provided a salad bar to 3 million students and the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act has increased funding for school meals and snacks to feed more than 50 million kids.

Nonprofit organizations such as Fresh Express has also made healthful food more accessible. Fresh Express is a mobile food truck operated by Discovery Triangle. It purchases food directly from farmers at wholesale, then sells it at no profit. It is essentially a grocery store on wheels that sells fresh fruits and vegetables to communities including schools, apartment complexes, senior centers, and health clinics across Phoenix and Tampa, Arizona. The operational costs of nonprofits such as Fresh Express are made possible through grants, donations, and sponsorships.

Another such initiative is the Twin Cities Mobile Market, a program of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This grocery store on wheels serves under-resourced areas in Minnesota. A $29 worth of purchase from the Mobile Market offers a wider array of healthful food choices than the same amount at a convenience store.

Resources for Creating Nutritious and Affordable Meals

The Choose My Plate program is supported by the United States Department of Agriculture. Choose My Plate is a reminder to maintain healthy eating habits by providing an easy-to-follow meal structure.

Choose My Plate’s Tips to Healthy Eating

The program encourages communities to choose foods and beverages that contain less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. It also recommends implementing small changes to help people build healthier eating styles.

There are also several online tools that individuals may use. SuperTracker, for example, helps plan, analyze, and track diet and physical activity. It also offers groups to motivate users to complete various challenges. What’s Cooking? is a searchable database that contains healthy recipes that offer users options to build a cookbook, print recipe cards, and share recipes through social media. Portion Distortion offers a link to quizzes on recommended food portions on the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) website. Daily Checklist offers information on what and how much to eat based on one’s age, gender, height, weight, and physical activity. Quizzes test knowledge of dairy, fruit, grains, protein, and vegetables. BMI Calculator offers links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Fighting Food Deserts

The number of tools and resources that Americans across the U.S. can use will hopefully help eradicate the problem of food deserts. In the meantime, nonprofits and government organizations will continue working with social workers to address the concerns that food deserts pose. Wide-ranging efforts that include education, advocacy, and raising awareness will be useful in helping individuals living in food deserts to make better food choices and ultimately enjoy healthier, happier lives.

What Is A Food Desert: Information About Food Deserts In America

I live in an economically vibrant metropolis. It’s expensive to live here and not everyone has the means to live a healthy lifestyle. Despite the ostentatious wealth showcased throughout my city, there are many areas of urban poor more recently referred to as food deserts. What is a food desert in America? What are some of the causes of food deserts? The following article contains information on food deserts, their causes and food desert solutions.

What is a Food Desert?

The United States Government defines a food desert as “a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

How do you qualify as low income? You must meet the Treasury Departments New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to be eligible. To qualify as a food desert, 33% of the population (or a minimum of 500 people) in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or grocery store, such as Safeway or Whole Foods.

Additional Food Desert Information

How is a low income census tract defined?

  • Any census tract in which the poverty rate is at least 20%
  • In rural areas where the median family income doesn’t exceed the 80 percentile of statewide median family income
  • Within a city the median family income doesn’t exceed 80% of the greater of statewide median family income or that of the median family income within the city.

“Low access” to a healthy grocers or supermarket means that the market is more than a mile away in urban areas and more than 10 miles away in rural regions. It gets a little more complex than that, but I trust you get the gist. Basically, we are taking about people that have little to no access to healthy food options within walking distance.

With such a surfeit of food available in the United States, how is it that we are talking about food deserts in America?

Causes of Food Deserts

Food deserts are brought about by a number of factors. They are typically located in low income areas where people often do not own a car. While public transportation can assist these people in some instances, often economic flux has driven grocery stores out of the city and into the suburbs. Suburban stores are often so far from the person, they may have to spend most of a day getting to and from the grocers, not to mention the task of carrying groceries home from a bus or subway stop.

Secondly, food deserts are socio-economic, meaning they arise in communities of color combined with low income. Less disposable income combined with a lack of transportation typically leads to the purchase of fast foods and processed foods available at the corner store. This leads to an increase in heart disease, higher incidence of obesity and diabetes.

Food Desert Solutions

About 23.5 million people live in food deserts! It’s such a huge problem the United States Government is taking steps to reduce food deserts and increase access to healthy foods. First Lady Michelle Obama is leading the charge with her “Let’s Move” campaign, whose goal is to eradicate food deserts by 2017. With this goal in mind, the U.S. has contributed $400 million to provide tax breaks to supermarkets that open in food deserts. Many cities are also working on solutions to the food desert problem.

Knowledge is power. Educating those in the community or tract of the food desert can help make changes, such as growing their own food and working with local convenience stores to sell healthier food options. Public awareness of food deserts can lead to healthy discourse and may even lead to ideas about how to end food deserts in America once and for all. No one should go hungry and everyone should have access to healthy food sources.

Why it takes more than a grocery store to eliminate a ‘food desert’

“Our goal is ambitious. It’s to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years.”

Michelle Obama spoke these words almost four years ago to students at Philadelphia’s Fairhill Elementary School, as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity in the United States. But the topic of her speech went beyond the issues of child health and nutrition to focus on a related — and just as critical — issue: 23.5 million Americans live in areas without supermarkets or other places where they can access fresh, nutritious foods. To change the situation in these areas — known as “food deserts” — Mrs. Obama called for action.

“This is happening all across the country. We’re setting people up for failure if we don’t fix this.”

Fast forward to 2014, though, and the problem of food deserts — and their effect on diet and health — still persists. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has mapped thousands of locations across the country where residents continue to live in low-income, low-access areas. Those who live in these areas are often subject to poor diets as a result, and are at a greater risk of becoming obese or developing chronic diseases.

So why hasn’t there been more drastic change? It’s not for lack of initiative. For example, Pennsylvania has launched a program whereby 88 new or expanded food retail outlets have been created, giving healthy food access to around 500,000 children and adults. And in fact, when the House passed the long-awaited farm bill on Wednesday, it included a provision for the HealthyFood Financing Initiative, which would allocate $125 million for expanding food resources in underserved communities across the nation.

The problem may not lie solely with food accessibility; it could also be due to people’s shopping and eating habits. Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggests that merely adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood won’t be enough to motivate individuals to shop there for healthier foods.

“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,” says Cummins. “It can improve perceptions of food access, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a behavior change.”

Could that be why more food deserts haven’t truly been eliminated? In his new study, published in the journal Health Affairs, Cummins examines how adding a supermarket to a food desert can change — or not change — the shopping habits and diet of those who live there. Surveying hundreds of residents in the grocery store’s neighborhood, Cummins and his team sought to determine the impact that the store had on individuals’ fruit and vegetable intake, BMI, and perceptions of food access.

Cummins sat down with the NewsHour last week to talk more about the study and its possible implications.

Steven Cummins is a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

PBS NEWSHOUR: Steven, thanks very much for speaking with us today. First off, give us some background. What’s the current policy surrounding food access in underserved communities?

STEVEN CUMMINS: In the last 15 to 20 years, particularly in the U.S., there’s been a lot of debate among researchers and policymakers about what to do about things called “food deserts” in underserved or low-income communities throughout the U.S. There’s lots of good research out there that tells us that a lack of access to food resources in a neighborhood is associated with a range of diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. So it’s very plausible and entirely reasonable that people come up with interventions to promote food access in deprived communities.

The issue is, though, that despite the loads of policy over the past few years both from local initiatives, such as in Pennsylvania and New York City, as well as national policies — like those promoted in the Let’s Move! campaign for childhood obesity — we don’t know whether these kinds of interventions are effective. What I mean by interventions is increasing food access by encouraging supermarkets to locate to underserved communities, usually through packages of tax incentives. So that’s the context. And our study is essentially an evaluation of what happens when you put a new food supermarket in one of these underserved communities.

PBS NEWSHOUR On that note, explain a little more about your study — what were you aiming for, and what did you find? :

CUMMINS: We focused on a supermarket in Philadelphia, which was funded under something called the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative — a statewide scheme whereby around 88 new stores have opened up in underserved communities throughout Pennsylvania. They’ve had financial support through grants and other types of financial incentives to relocate to these areas. With that in mind, we undertook an evaluation to see whether actually locating these kinds of stores in these kinds of places makes a difference to diets. In our study, the “headline” finding is that we don’t really find any direct impacts on diets, as measured by fruit and vegetable consumption as well as obesity. But we do find improvements in people’s perceptions of their access in their food environment. They think that things have gotten better in their neighborhood, but haven’t necessarily turned their awareness into a change of behavior. So that’s the main finding. But the second finding, which I actually think is more interesting, is that when given the opportunity, very few people try and switch to using newer or better provisions within their local community.

PBS NEWSHOUR: And why do you think so few people switched, or changed their diet habits, when the new grocery store opened?

CUMMINS: We didn’t actually collect information about this in our study, but we have done some other work related to this in the UK. And it’s kind of very interesting, actually. When you go and interview people about how they shop, you tend to find that they have routine places to shop that they’re familiar and comfortable with. We had a woman in one of our UK studies who actually lived next door to a brand new supermarket, but still traveled to an area over three miles away because that’s where she was born, that’s where she grew up — it was a place she had a connection to. So there are all sorts of other reasons apart from the rational ones around cost when people make these decisions.

I guess it’s also to do with the fact that these kinds of stores might not always sell cheaper food. People who are on low incomes tend to be very savvy shoppers, and they often shop around, using multiple stores to get the best deals on a range of items. So you tend to find that people who are on low incomes move around the neighborhood a lot, even if there is a time cost.

Another insight to be had is that when you shop in a modern supermarket, you’re assaulted — your senses are assaulted. There’s a greater range of choice that can tempt some families to overspend or purchase foods that don’t comprise elements of a healthy meal. So if you’re trying to avoid all those other temptations or incentives to not spend money in the way that you would like, then you often avoid those kinds of opportunities to purchase food.

PBS NEWSHOUR: In that case, do you think researchers and the media may have jumped the gun when reporting on food deserts?

CUMMINS: Well no, not really, actually. I think the evidence is well established. It tells us that firstly, food deserts do exist in many urban and rural areas of the U.S. They are a reality for many people who live in disadvantaged circumstances, either in low-income communities or other kinds of communities that might have poor access to neighborhood resources. Also, the evidence does tell us very strongly that those who live in these kinds of neighborhoods do tend to have poorer diets and are at an increased risk of chronic conditions. So that’s not in dispute. The issue here is that actually, very little research evaluates the effectiveness of interventions. We know that an association exists, but we don’t know much about what happens when you try to change the environment. As often is the case in politics, policies are made from the best available evidence and with the best intentions. So in this case, policy has been made from the wider body of evidence that supports an association — since when it comes to looking at the effectiveness of intervention, the evidence base is incomplete.

And clearly, I think it’s worth mentioning that people do need to be able to access a reasonable range of healthy food at a reasonable cost. My message is that just building supermarkets to increase access will only take you half of the way in improving diet. 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.

PBS NEWSHOUR: How strong is your message, though, considering that your study only looked at one grocery store in one community for just six months?

CUMMINS: When we were funded to do this work, it was actually intended to be a pilot study with the idea of generating some interesting findings that could then be used to essentially run a definitive study further down the line. That didn’t happen for various reasons – one of which is that the recession happened, and the supermarket opened three years later than it was supposed to. So the opportunity passed, I guess. But you’re right – this is a pilot study, and it’s a small one at that. We also know from looking at business literature that stores often take a fair bit of time to bed into the local community. In some cases there might be an uptick in usage, which then tails off; in other places, it may be that it takes a very long time for people to become used to the store and see it as a routine place to go. It may be that our study, which only lasted six months, is not enough time for people to really realize that it’s there and use it for their main food shop. So if we took a look at this one, two, or three years down the line, we might see a greater amount of people who have adopted this store as their main store.

I wouldn’t want to hang my hat on the findings, but we need larger studies in more diverse communities that follow people for longer. But I guess the strength is that even though the work that does exist in this area has been quite small scale, it’s remarkably consistent in its findings.

PBS NEWSHOUR: So what will be more effective in helping improve people’s diet and health in these regions? And what should future policies focus on?

CUMMINS: At a basic level, people need to have good access to food. But good access does not necessarily mean you have to have access to a supermarket, such as a Walmart or Kroger or somewhere similar. It can also include other kinds of food outlets, such as farmers’ markets, community food initiatives, and actually, even convenience stores. I think there should be better support for the convenience store sector. Poor neighborhoods in the U.S. and other countries tend to have a very large and diverse convenience store sector, and many people do their shopping there. So trying to get good food in those kinds of places might be an additional way of thinking about improving the food environment in those neighborhoods.

In addition to improving physical access to food in disadvantaged neighborhoods, you also need to think about policies that help bridge this gap between perception and action. These might include things such as economic initiatives — like taxes or subsidies for healthy foods — but could also include harnessing in-store marketing to promote the purchase of healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy foods.

There’s also evidence that suggests you need good health education programs that teach the skills needed for buying and cooking healthy foods. We’ve done some work here in the UK where we’ve followed consumers around the store as they actually buy food. Even though all of them were from low-income communities, they all had different strategies about how they decide what to put in their shopping baskets. Some people are incredibly good — one woman used to put her total budget on her mobile phone’s calculator, and every time she purchased something she would take that amount of money off the total. When it reached zero, that was it — she was very disciplined. But others have more chaotic approaches — shopping by offers like 2-for-1 deals. And at the end of the day, once they spent their total amount of money, they would look in their basket and realize they had a bunch of items that they couldn’t construct a meal from. So even though people from disadvantaged neighborhoods are tagged in the same way, there’s a real diversity in how people behave when it comes to buying and cooking food. We have to think very carefully about giving people the skills to make better decisions when they’re in stores, as well as providing access to the stores in the first place.

PBS NEWSHOUR: What do you want people to take away most from your study?

CUMMINS: I want to stress that supermarket interventions — even though I don’t think they’re necessarily effective in the way people think they’ll be effective — are very important, and I am actually quite supportive of them. Access at the basic level is something you need to have before you have anything else. But the key message I want to get across is that they’re just not successful on their own. We need them plus a range of other things that might make a difference to improve people’s diet. You’ve got to think about the culture around shopping and eating food, too.

PBS NEWSHOUR: Steven Cummins, thanks so much for joining us.

CUMMINS: Thank you.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides grants to help alleviate the problem of food deserts, and they are a funder of our health coverage.

You may have heard of “food deserts,” but do you know the implications of inaccessibility to healthy food on public health?

Mary-Katherine Smith, DrPH, public health faculty member in Capella University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, shares more about this public health crisis and what initiatives are in place to help eliminate it.

Q. What is a food desert?

A. It’s a geographic area where affordable, nutritious food is hard to get. That doesn’t just mean a lack of grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, although that’s part of it. It also involves a concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell high-calorie, low-nutrition food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines an urban food desert as a place where concentrations of residents live at least one mile—or in rural areas, at least 10 miles—from a source of healthy food.

Lack of transportation is also a factor—if individuals don’t have a car or access to convenient public transportation, they may have no choice but to walk to that fast food restaurant or convenience store to buy food.

Q. Who’s at risk in a food desert?

A. It’s an uneven distribution, affecting primarily those with lower incomes and minorities.

It’s prevalent in urban and in rural areas, where under- and unemployment is a factor, or where individuals may not have easy access to nutritious food. And something people don’t always understand is how food deserts affect children—without proper nutrition, they can become malnourished and at greater risk for obesity, even if they’re not missing meals.

Q. What is public health’s role in working to eliminate food deserts?

A. One way public health officials deal with health disparities is by educating communities, which takes several forms.

  • First, communities need to know how to access healthier foods. Public health professionals can help increase awareness of alternative places to obtain healthy foods other than traditional grocery stores, such as farmers markets, community gardens, co-ops, and community-supported agriculture (CSA).
  • Second, communities need to understand why healthier food is better, even if it’s sometimes more expensive. Public health professionals can help educate people on how to eat well on a limited budget. There are already many state and federal programs in place that educate communities on how to eat healthy foods on a limited budget. For example, Women Infants and Children (WIC) raises the awareness of local farmer’s markets and provides free nutrition education and fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income families.
  • Third, we need to educate communities about nutrition itself. For example, McDonald’s now offers fruit for kids’ meals and salad offerings, but if you read the nutrition labels, the salads aren’t always that much healthier than the other menu items. This is another way public health professionals can educate communities on making healthy food choices.

It’s hard to change an individual’s norms. That’s where public health comes in. Not just to educate, but to show communities the significance of wanting to change these habits. Social media is an avenue that can be very successful for public health workers to reach out to these populations, particularly in rural areas.

Q. What are public health professionals already doing to impact public policy and communities?

A. Public health professionals can develop, fund, implement, and evaluate interventions to reduce the effects of food deserts. For example, there are partnerships in place to encourage grocery chains and food suppliers to build stores in food deserts through tax breaks, etc.

There also have been educational initiatives in communities, within grocery stores or farmers’ markets, where fresh fruits and vegetables are promoted and prominently displayed, or incentives are provided for customers to purchase fresh items rather than processed.

Public health can also educate individuals to do container and/or hydroponic gardening, work on implementing gardening programs and food growing and preparation programs into preschool, kindergarten, and elementary schools, and work on and encourage environment and community garden programs.

School-based healthy food interventions have been effective in replacing unhealthy choices in a cafeteria with healthier options, such as fruit, closer to the students’ reach and at the register.

Although there is still a lot of work to do to impact public policy and the community, public health is making a difference.

Q. How is Capella addressing this issue in its public health programs?

A. Capella has a strong health disparities curriculum, woven throughout all of our public health programs. Students learn how determinants of health affect health outcomes and how they vary by population. They study how to target messages to different audiences, and how to understand those audiences, reach them, and speak to them. They need to have all these tools to address these disparities, and they’re getting that in our programs.

Learn more about Capella’s online public health programs.


The North American urban landscape has changed considerably over the past few decades with the advent of the automobile as the transportation mode of choice. Privatized mobility allowed wealthier people to move outward from city centers toward the suburbs, and with them went many of the supermarkets that used to pervade urban areas. The steady suburbanization of major food retailers is contributing to the emergence of urban “food deserts,” areas within city centers where low-income people have poor access to vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods. Because many chronic diseases have been associated with low consumption of vegetables and fruits, along with high consumption of sugary or high-fat foods, urban food deserts may be taking a health toll on those who live in socially deprived neighborhoods.

Canadian researchers at The University of Western Ontario recently studied the evolution of food deserts since the 1960s in the mid-sized city of London, Ontario. They used a geographic information system (GIS) to map locations of supermarkets in 1961 and 2005. Then they assessed changes in supermarket access in relation to neighborhood location, socioeconomic characteristics, and access to public transit using multiple “network analysis” techniques, which take into account variations in how people are spaced and actually move throughout their environs.

In an article published 18 April 2008 in the online International Journal of Health Geographics, the research team reported that low-income residents of London’s inner-city neighborhoods had poorer access to supermarkets than middle- and high-income residents. Moreover, spatial inequalities in access to supermarkets had increased over time. In 1961, more than 75% of London’s inner-city population lived within 1 kilometer of a supermarket, giving them easy access to a variety of foods, says principal investigator Jason Gilliland, who directs the university’s Urban Development Program. In 2005, he says, that number was less than 20%.

“One can say that this problem may only get worse in the near future, considering current concerns about rising food prices and food scarcity,” says Isaac Luginaah, Canada Research Chair in Health Geography at The University of Western Ontario. “ findings therefore require policy attention.”

Gilliland suggests several strategies for dealing with urban food deserts. To begin with, he says, cities should support planning policies that boost the inner-city population (e.g., better transportation, housing, and schools) while offering grocery retailers direct incentives (e.g., zoning allowances, tax holidays, or tax rebates) to locate downtown. City planners can also encourage smaller alternative food retailers, especially farmer’s markets. For neighborhoods that cannot support a farmer’s market every day, Gilliland suggests a “mobile market” that visits various neighborhoods throughout the week. For residents without a car, ride sharing and weekend shuttle bus services could be explored to serve disadvantaged neighborhoods without a supermarket.

This is the first known historical analysis of how food deserts evolve over time, exploring empirically (and confirming) the assumption that pedestrians had easier access to grocery stores in the past, says Gilliland. “On the other hand,” he adds, “many people, including policy makers, may assume that accessibility is universal in the age of the automobile, without recognizing the problems faced by people without an automobile.”

Future studies will need to factor in car trips to supermarkets, which the London study did not do, says nutritional epidemiologist Margo Barker of the University of Sheffield School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. It remains to be seen, she adds, whether good access to a supermarket actually benefits food decisions and nutritional health, particularly for those most in need.

To improve future studies of these issues, Gilliland says it may be helpful to interview people who live in food deserts to better understand the psychological, economic, and personal effects of these settings. “After all,” he says, “the continued closure of supermarkets in disadvantaged areas will lead to more unemployment and likely have devastating effects on the health of an already vulnerable population.”

Even before Ashanté Reese and I reach the front gate, retired schoolteacher Alice Chandler is standing in the doorway of her brick home in Washington, D.C. She welcomes Reese, an anthropologist whom she has known for six years, with a hug and apologizes for having nothing to feed us during this spontaneous visit.

Chandler, 69 years old, is a rara avis among Americans: an adult who has lived nearly her entire life in the same house. This fact makes her stories particularly valuable to Reese, who has been studying the changing food landscape in Deanwood, a historically black neighborhood across the Anacostia River from most of the city.

When Chandler was growing up, horse-drawn wagons delivered meat, fish, and vegetables to her doorstep. The neighborhood had a milkman, as did many U.S. communities in the mid-20th century. Her mother grew vegetables in a backyard garden and made wine from the fruit of their peach tree.

Food was shared across fence lines. “Your neighbor may have tomatoes and squash in their garden,” Chandler says. “And you may have cucumbers in yours. Depending on how bountiful each one was, they would trade off.” Likewise, when people went fishing, “they would bring back enough for friends in the neighborhood. That often meant a Saturday evening fish fry at home.”

Around the corner was the Spic N Span Market, a grocery with penny candy, display cases of fresh chicken and pork chops, and an old dog who slept in the back. The owner, whom Chandler knew as “Mr. Eddie,” was a Jewish man who hired African-American cashiers and extended credit to customers short on cash. Next door was a small farm whose owner used to give fresh eggs to Chandler’s mother.

Chandler was born into this architecturally eclectic neighborhood. On the basis of oral histories found in archives, Reese mapped 11 different groceries that were open in Deanwood during its peak years, the 1930s and ’40s. African-Americans owned five. Jews, excluded by restrictive covenants from living in some other D.C. neighborhoods, owned six. For much of the mid-20th century, there was also a Safeway store.

Today there are exactly zero grocery stores. The only places for Deanwood’s 5,000 residents to buy food in their neighborhood are corner stores, abundantly stocked with beer and Beefaroni but nearly devoid of fruit, vegetables, and meat. At one of those stores, which I visited, a “Healthy Corners” sign promised fresh produce. Instead, I found two nearly empty wooden shelves sporting a few sad-looking onions, bananas, apples, and potatoes. The nearest supermarket, a Safeway, is a hilly 30-minute walk away. A city council member who visited last year found long lines, moldy strawberries, and meat that appeared to have spoiled.

The common name for neighborhoods like these is “food deserts,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as areas “where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” According to the USDA, food deserts tend to offer sugary, fatty foods; the department also says that poor access to fruits, vegetables, and lean meats could lead to obesity and diabetes. A map produced by the nonpartisan D.C. Policy Center puts about half of Deanwood into a desert.

A map of Washington, D.C., “food deserts” reveals that roughly half of the Deanwood neighborhood (the red triangle in the northeast, near Fairmount Heights) lacks options for purchasing food. The orange dots indicate grocery stores. D.C. Policy Center

But Reese, an assistant professor of anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, has joined a number of scholars who are pushing back against the food desert model. She calls it a “lazy” shorthand to describe both a series of corporate decisions and a complex human ecosystem.

“Language matters,” says Reese, who explores these issues in a new book, Black Food Geographies, due out next year. Use the wrong words to describe the problem and you end up with one-dimensional solutions that don’t address the root causes of poor diets. Both the U.S. and British governments have emphasized supermarket-building as a way out of their country’s nutrition woes. Yet there’s “limited causal evidence” that this strategy improves diets, according to a 2017 report by economists from New York University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. They analyzed food-purchase data to understand the complex reasons why affluent Americans eat healthier than their poorer counterparts and concluded that leveling the grocery field would “reduce nutritional inequality by only 9 percent.”

Reese adds that people often inaccurately think of deserts as lifeless. “The desert metaphor there’s really nothing of value,” she says. “When we use ‘food desert,’ we don’t see the people and businesses and networks and thoughts and desires and hopes. This metaphor wipes all of that off the map.” By looking past the label, she argues, we can finally understand and address the decades of disinvestment that have depleted neighborhoods of healthy retail options—and we can finally appreciate the resilience of current residents.

How communities feed themselves has been a theme running through Reese’s life. Now 33 years old, she grew up in Porter Springs, Texas, whose population was (and is) 50, on a red-clay dirt road where everyone was family, “biological or not.” Her uncles raised goats, hogs, and poultry for slaughter, and Reese remembers her grandfather wringing chickens’ necks to process them for consumption. She and the other children picked wild blackberries, which her grandmother baked into what Reese recalls as “soulful” cobblers.

After college, in 2008, while Reese was teaching social studies and coaching track and field at an all-girls public school in Atlanta, she had a conversation with two young athletes that would inspire her later research. Reese had taken the girls to a clinic for a physical exam and was planning to cook dinner for them afterward. They went shopping together in suburban Cobb County. The girls marveled over Reese’s neighborhood store, leading her to realize that even though they lived just a few miles away, they had never seen such bounty.

That same year, after Reese had taught her students about civil disobedience, they proposed a boycott of the cafeteria to protest its scant offerings. Reese’s one condition was that no classmate went hungry. “If someone can’t bring their lunch, then someone needs to bring an extra lunch,” she remembers telling them. The students’ efforts eventually led to a meeting with a school district representative, after which the school got a salad bar.

Those stories—about the power of food to widen inequalities and to bring people together—were on Reese’s mind when she entered graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., and began studying Deanwood. It was 2012, and Reese was interested in how the neighborhood’s food geography affected people’s diets. Her first impulse was to ask neighbors about the contents of their pantries. That’s not, however, what they wanted to talk about.

Alice Chandler’s (left) lifelong experiences in Deanwood have helped inform anthropologist Ashanté Reese’s (right) research on how the neighborhood’s food options have evolved. Barry Yeoman

Instead, they began with history: the time when they had several grocery options, walked to shops, gardened in their yards, and bought produce from “hucksters” selling from wagons and trucks. “There were some gendered memories, too, around women and cooking, and remembering a time when mothers were home to do that,” Reese says. (Chandler, for instance, recalls how rigorously she learned to cook: “That shucking of the corn—you had to do it precisely. You had to snap the peas in a given way.”)

Throughout Reese’s interviews, “the theme of community ran through quite strongly,” she says. This was, and is, part of Deanwood’s identity. The neighborhood took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as African-American architects, drafters, and carpenters designed and built single-family wood-frame houses on farmland once worked by slaves. It was also home to the Suburban Gardens Amusement Park, a destination for African-American families who were barred from whites-only parks. On the historical markers that dot its streets, Deanwood residents are described as “a self-reliant people.”

This self-reliance is communal, not individualistic. “One of the elders was telling me about how he didn’t remember there being homelessness in Deanwood in the past like there is now,” Reese says. “It wasn’t because people weren’t transient. It’s just that someone would always take them in.”

Shortly after Reese began her fieldwork, she attended a conference where, for the first time, she heard scholars criticize the food desert model. Their arguments, along with Reese’s Deanwood interviews, forced her to reconsider some of the assumptions she had brought into graduate school.

The food desert concept originated in Great Britain in the 1990s. According to the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), a public housing resident in Scotland reputedly first used the phrase, presumably to describe their surrounding neighborhood. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government adopted the term—despite warnings of thin data.

Much like his U.S. counterpart, President Bill Clinton, Blair advocated a moderate, market-driven political approach that he called the Third Way. The concept of food deserts fit neatly into his script: Incentives and public-private partnerships could “solve” the problem by helping to build groceries in depressed areas.

The metaphor found fans in the United States, too, as an alternative to blaming poor and working-class people for conditions like obesity. “Many of the debates over food and health disparities, especially if you look at the pop-culture debates, they’re so individualistic,” says Alison Alkon, a sociologist at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. “They’re focused on ‘Why do you not have the willpower to put down the McDonald’s and go exercise?’” (Even health professionals share these biases: In a 2003 survey of U.S. physicians, 44 percent called obese people “weak-willed” and 30 percent described them as “lazy.”)

The desert metaphor challenged these stereotypes about individual behavior. “‘Food deserts’ makes it a structural issue that has to do with urban development and redlining and economic history,” Alkon says. “Obviously, it’s a step forward.”

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, designed to “eliminate food deserts” in part by using grants and low-interest loans to build supermarkets. The initiative was later incorporated into the 2014 Farm Bill.

But by then many academics, including Alkon, and activists were calling the metaphor inadequate and misleading. Yes, swaths of urban America have been abandoned by the supermarket industry. But that doesn’t explain the link between wealth and nutrition.

Some researchers suspect that U.S. farm subsidies supporting the production of corn (pictured here) and other crops result in processed foods that are significantly cheaper—but less nutritious—than other options. Edwin Remsburg/Getty Images

The real explanations are multilayered and complicated. They’re partly financial: Healthy food costs more (perhaps, some critics suggest, because U.S. farm policies subsidize commodity crops like corn and soy, which are used to make processed foods), and even small price differences can break the budget of a low-income family. In addition, the complications of poverty and racism—crowded housing, job discrimination, longer commutes, diminished educational opportunities, and greater overall emotional stress, to name a few—make it harder to act on public health messages.

The factors are partly geographic, too, but not just in terms of supermarkets. During her studies, Reese discovered the work of Naa Oyo A. Kwate, an associate professor of human ecology and Africana studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Kwate has mapped the distribution of cheap, unhealthy fast food in New York and found an overabundance in black neighborhoods. “Segregation fosters a weak retail climate and a surplus of low-wage labor, both of which make the proliferation of fast food probable,” Kwate wrote in a 2008 paper.

It’s no surprise, then, that several studies have drawn the same conclusion: Introducing a supermarket to a depressed area does little to improve people’s diets. Two food-policy scholars, Nathan Rosenberg and Nevin Cohen, argue that the real solutions lie in “upstream interventions” that address inequality: a higher minimum wage, stronger labor protections, more generous government benefits, and universal free school lunches. “There are no shortcuts to eliminating food poverty,” they wrote in a recent article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.

On the afternoon that we visit Deanwood, Reese cuts an elegant, fluorescent figure: lime-green nail polish, blue lipstick, and red-highlighted Marley twists piled into a bun. Because the neighborhood has so few restaurants, we first meet for lunch six miles away, near the Catholic University of America. Over shrimp and grits, she tells me about her fieldwork.

While interviewing residents, Reese says, she heard a consistent racial critique. “No matter what age, felt that Deanwood doesn’t have as many options because it is predominantly black,” she says. “Almost everyone articulated that.”

Ashanté Reese (right) and a planting volunteer check seedlings in a community garden at a public housing complex just outside Deanwood in May of 2014. Ashanté Reese

She also found that Deanwood’s residents talked about how they continue to eat well by working together. Reese tells me about a community garden at a public housing complex just outside the neighborhood’s boundaries that produced vegetables such as kale, eggplant, and peppers. “They’re growing in these six raised beds on city land, which they may or may not have permission to do,” she says. Unlike many other such gardens, this one didn’t have individual plots. “There was no lock on the gate. People could come in and take whatever they wanted. … There was one man who would use stuff from the garden to make big pots of soup at the end of the month, when people’s money was low, and just share it.”

Other ways people discussed self-reliance were more mundane. They patronized the one black-owned corner store in Deanwood that sold deli meats, canned beans, and some fresh produce. They organized ride shares, especially for elders, to supermarkets outside their neighborhood. They turned old automobiles into unlicensed cabs, which they parked outside the Safeway to spare shoppers a 30-minute walk with heavy bags. (Not many taxis served the area.)

Such self-reliant solutions often become invisible in discussions of food deserts. Semantically, the word “desert” is loaded; it’s often paired with “barren” or “wasteland.” One study from Australia noted that desert dwellers are often viewed as “marginalized” people who live off subsidies from the mainstream.

In her research, Reese met scholars and activists who argued that the food desert metaphor is equally freighted. Monica White, an assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, points out that, even though the term has reduced the tendency to blame poor nutrition on individuals and their “lack of willpower,” it’s also shifted culpability to the neighborhood as a whole. “Somehow the community is at fault,” she says.

That fault-finding can come from within. Reese discovered that some Deanwood residents pointed to generational failings. I remembered that finding when Chandler talked about her own youth: “Soups, dumplings—women made things from scratch. And these young women barely know how to open the microwave.”

On the flip side, food deserts wrongly imply a geographical determinism—an inevitable surrender to processed and fast food, says Dara Cooper, an organizer for the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, who has influenced Reese’s scholarship. “So often, black communities are referenced”—by policymakers and even liberal advocates—“as passive, empty receptacles … completely ignoring what communities are doing themselves to drive solutions.”

Self-reliance has its limits. It’s rare that local fixes meet the needs of an entire community.The solutions Reese witnessed in Deanwood are relatively modest. Elsewhere, communities have mounted more ambitious responses. In Oakland, California, Mandela Grocery, a worker-owned market, sources food from local farmers and offers deep discounts to families that use food stamps. Freedom Farmers’ Market, also in Oakland, specializes in traditional foods grown by African-Americans.

But self-reliance has its limits. It’s rare that local fixes meet the needs of an entire community, in part because they don’t eradicate those big upstream woes. That’s why it’s also important to document the way African-American communities have been abandoned. “Supermarket executives know that people are resilient, because people need food and they’re going to get food no matter what,” Reese says. “Just because I’m focusing on the ways that people are able to get food despite corporate failures does not let corporations off the hook.”

What happened in Deanwood was both city-specific and part of a larger exodus occurring in black neighborhoods around the country. After World War II, restrictive covenants, like the one barring home sales to “negroes” and to “Jews, Hebrews, Armenians, Persians, and Syrians,” began easing up in the District—aided, in part, by a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that declared the covenants unenforceable. That opened up more of the city to Jewish grocery owners. Then, in 1972, the District Grocery Stores co-op, formed in 1921 to strengthen the Jewish community’s buying power and fight anti-Semitism in the food industry, shut down. Merchants blamed competition from supermarkets, which had extended their hours to evenings and Sundays, along with a spike in crime.

“The small stores used to stay in business by staying open late at night,” one grocer told The Washington Post. “Now the only thing to wait for at night is someone with a gun.”

Meanwhile, supermarket executives were plotting their exodus from minority neighborhoods nationwide. Reese studied industry trade publications and discovered discussion of “embattled cities” as early as the 1960s. “Several chains have ‘had it,’” said a 1967 article in Modern Grocer, explaining that “chronic lawlessness” was forcing company executives to “reduce or eliminate entirely stores in … riot torn areas.”

Deanwood’s Safeway closed in 1980. For a few years, a black-owned grocery chain called Super Pride operated in the same building, drawing shoppers from around the region with traditional offerings like collards and hog maws (stomachs). It struggled, however, in the mid-1980s, when the nearby public housing complex was emptied for renovation. A few years later, the store was gone. (Another followed, Chandler says, but only briefly.)

By then, supermarket planners were coming to favor the ample square footage and easy parking of suburban strip malls. Stores were disappearing from urban neighborhoods, particularly those with large African-American populations. In 1984, Mother Jones reported that Safeway had closed 600 stores, many of them in inner cities, over the previous five years. Hartford, Connecticut, the same article noted, had lost 11 of its 13 chains since 1968.

The area for zip code 20019, which contains numerous neighborhoods, has steadily lost grocery stores over recent decades. Cay Leytham-Powell/SAPIENS

Store locations, Reese concluded from her research, reflect larger patterns of racial segregation. (Even well-off African-American neighborhoods have fewer stores than their white counterparts, she noted.) “Want to know how/what inequality looks like in your city?” she wrote in a Twitter thread in January. “Trace the opening and closing of supermarkets.”

“Welcome to Deanwood,” Reese says after lunch, as I steer my rental car onto Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. The road’s namesake emblematizes the neighborhood’s self-reliance: In 1909, Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls, which educated its mostly working-class black students in everything from power-machine operation to missionary work and didn’t solicit funds from white donors.

We park in front of the black-owned corner store that residents had regarded fondly. This was Reese’s first visit to Deanwood since the owner died three months earlier. She enters first, without me, and comes out crestfallen. The new management has gotten rid of the small vegetable section and erected a shield of Plexiglas in front of the cash register. The shelves offer little more than beer, canned soup, and snack foods, plus a few errant bags of flour.

“It looks like what we think of as a corner store now, in a way that it didn’t look before,” she says. “That catches me completely off-guard.” She lets out a long, audible sigh.

We continue on to the public housing community. It’s a vast complex of brick buildings laid out in hilly tiers. Outside, young men play basketball and an ice cream truck (“which may or may not be a real ice cream truck,” Reese says) makes slow rounds. The complex is slated for demolition, and many of its buildings are boarded up. Despite policy efforts intended to “eliminate food deserts,” no new stores have come to this neighborhood. In truth, interventions would need to target the damage of structural inequality, poverty, and racism to make meaningful change. In the meantime, the people of Deanwood have to find their own fixes.

We climb some concrete steps to view the garden Reese had described over lunch. All that remain are a single fallow bed and a waterlogged patch of dandelions and grass.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Reese laughs sadly. She uses the moment to reflect on what she calls the “limits of self-reliance.” Even the Freedom Farm Cooperative, she observes, which civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer founded in Mississippi in 1969 as a model of community-based economic development, shut down after four years as external funding dried up.

Reese isn’t totally surprised by this outcome. But it still hurts to see it on her return visit. “I am just going to get my heart broken in a bunch of different ways today,” she says, surveying the ruins.

This article was republished at Civil Eats.

It’s coming up on a year since the annual Social Venture Innovation Challenge put hard cash into the hands of budding entrepreneurs, and we thought we’d check in with a couple of the winners to see where they are with their ventures.

Food deserts are areas where residents have limited access to fresh and affordable food. In metropolitan food deserts, residents must travel more than a mile to reach a grocery store — often by bus, subway or on foot. In rural food deserts, residents travel more than 10 miles to reach the nearest market.

Shannon and Bradley Calabro (center) after winning the 2014 Social Venture Innovation Challenge

This is more than just an inconvenience for the 23 million Americans who live in food deserts; it’s a public health problem. Limited food access leads to less healthy eating habits and increased incidences of obesity and diabetes.

Bradley and Shannon Calabro ’15G would like to make food deserts history.

They envision buses, retrofitted to serve as mobile markets that visit many neighborhoods daily, carrying healthy items such as fresh produce and proteins into areas where such foods are hard to find, expensive or non-existent.

Last fall, the husband-wife team entered their idea for Amano Mobile Grocery Stores into the Social Venture Innovation Challenge (SVIC), the competition, now in its third year, that shines a light on novel ideas for businesses aimed at solving pressing social or environmental problems.

“It was just an idea when we entered,” says Bradley Calabro ’15G. “At the time I was taking the entrepreneurship class in Paul College; the class is centered on developing an idea for a business. My wife was in the master’s of social work program where she bumped into the food desert problem regularly.”

Amano’s new logo.

They entered the idea and went on to win the student division of the competition, taking home $5,000 plus free consulting services and other business boosters to help them bring their idea from concept to curbside.

“We’re extremely grateful,” Calabro says. “It was great to see that people were receptive to the idea, and it was a good way to start a dialogue with potential investors.”

He says the competition energized them and they started off “really gung-ho,” but now the couple is taking a more measured approach to building their budding enterprise. Currently they’re focusing on research and planning.

A Sensible Venture

Andrew Jaccoma ’12G, founder of Sensible Spreader Technologies, took home a $10,000 check after winning first-place in the community division of the 2014 Social Venture Innovation Challenge. Today, Jaccoma’s technology is riding with road crews in four municipalities and a state agency. 


“Potential investors in the business will want to see a proven model, and within the next year, we’d like to pilot the idea,” Calabro says.

That’s a smart approach, says Jeffrey Sohl, director of the Center for Venture Research at Paul College.

“Too many people jump in too early and they’re just not ready for prime time,” Sohl says. “And once you’ve got capital from investors, you must succeed, so it’s a very good idea to step back, get the pieces in order, get some traction.”

Traction is what the Calabros are looking for, and they’re on the right track. They have a new logo; they’re figuring out permitting and distribution requirements; they’re saving money; and they’ve tucked away most of their SVIC winnings for “prime time.”

When the first bus rolls into a Greater Boston food desert, they’ll know that Amano Mobile Grocery Stores has arrived.

Registration is open for the 2015 Social Venture Innovation Challenge.

What’s your idea? Alex Freid ’13, winner of the first SVIC, says, “Turn your wild idea into reality.”

The Social Venture Innovation Challenge is co-hosted and organized by the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, the Carsey School for Public Policy, the Sustainability Institute, NH EPSCoR, Net Impact UNH and UNH Innovation. Supporters include Timberland, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, PixelMEDIA, AlphaLoft and New Hampshire Business Review.

The Socio-Economic Significance of Food Deserts

In a recent post, we examined the prevalence of food deserts, places with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In 2006, 2.4 million households were located in food deserts, defined for households as being more than a mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle. We showed that the food desert problem varied significantly depending on where you live.

For example, while only 1.5 percent of households in wealthy, suburban Monied ‘Burbs were located in food deserts, a much higher 4.2 percent of those homes in Evangelical Epicenters were in a “desert.” And a full 5.9 percent of the homes in Minority Central counties did.

And these broader averages understate the extent of the problem in many specific places where the numbers are remarkably higher. In Tensas Parish, La., (a Minority Central community), for example, 17.6 percent of households with no care were more than a mile from a supermarket; in Wilcox County, Ala., (Minority Central) the figure was 18.6 percent; and in Holmes County, Ohio, (Evangelical Epicenter) a full 27.9 percent of households were in food desserts.

Look on the map below on those swaths of brown from West Virginia down through Louisiana. In those places, more than 5 percent of the households sit in a food desert.

Why It Matters

But what difference does living in a food desert make? Is it simply a matter of inconvenience? If food deserts only mean that people need to walk farther or rely on public transportation in order to buy healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, is that so bad? Do policy makers and public health advocates need to worry much about them?

In a word, yes.

Food deserts can be hazardous to your health. Living in a food desert matters a lot when it comes to a pair of serious public health issues: obesity and diabetes. As we’ve written before, these problems vary across communities, and the data show that they’re clearly related to the prevalence of food deserts.

Nationally, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, counties with the highest percentage of households living in food deserts (10 percent or more) had rates of adult obesity in 2008 that were a full nine percentage points higher than counties with the lowest percentage of households in food deserts (1 percent or fewer households).

Similarly, high-food desert counties had rates of adult diabetes that were five points higher than low-food desert places.

Surely, these differences reflect the particular characteristics of counties in which more people live in food deserts. Diabetes, for example, is related to poverty and unemployment, not simply to proximity to a supermarket. However, the relationship between food deserts and these health outcomes remains, even after we control for counties’ median household income, poverty rates, and the racial and ethnic make-up of the population.

Food deserts also contribute significantly to obesity among low-income preschool children. All of which is to say, living in a food desert is not incidental, it has an independent effect on obesity and diabetes. Food deserts matter for public health.

Why should this be the case? It has to do with how people living in food deserts fill in the gaps in their diet. Counties with high rates of food deserts also tend to have higher per capita expenditure at fast food restaurants. (Among full service restaurants, the pattern is reversed: there is more per-capita spending in places with fewer food deserts.) This suggests that people in food deserts may be substituting less nutritious fast food for the produce and other fresh food they have only limited access to.

There is also the question of what’s available. Healthy – and expensive – supermarket chains and specialty stores aren’t itching to get food desert communities that are generally poorer than average.

What about farmers’ markets? Might they provide alternative sources of nutritious fresh food to people living far from supermarkets? As it turns out, counties with more households living in food deserts have fewer farmers markets, not more. (We’ll have much more to say about farmers markets in a future post.)

Growing Problems

But beyond the costs and the habits, there are some more troubling aspects to these food desert locales.

When you combine the other data we have seen in Patchwork Nation with these food desert and public health numbers, there are signs of a growing socio-economic and cultural problem. The study of food deserts is still relatively new, but there seem to be two key factors that go into making a county prone for these deserts – lower levels of population density and lower levels of wealth.

There are a few Patchwork Nation types that match those factors fairly neatly: the Evangelical Epicenters, Service Worker Centers and Minority Central. As the chart illustrates, it is in these places – Evangelical Epicenters and Minority Central in particular – that have the highest levels of households in food deserts, obesity, and diabetes.

And those communities are not only not doing well economically now, they have been on a downward track for some time. They all have seen their incomes fall since 1980, as we noted earlier this year in a piece in the Atlantic Monthly.

There is, in other words, a structural problem for them economically and the food desert challenge raises those stakes.

The people living in those places are not only living in poorer places that are less healthy. They are actually getting less wealthy over time as well, which, in turn, may make it harder to turn the tide on the health trends.

And that, ultimately, is a testament to the challenge of the food deserts – they are both a symptom and cause of broader problems in these communities in particular.

The challenges in those places run deep and touch on many aspects of life. They may start at the punch-clock but they run through to the dinner table and eventually to the doctor’s office.

Dante Chinni, is the director of Patchwork Nation.
Paul Freedman is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and co-founder of the UVA Food Collaborative.

Life in America’s Food Deserts—How Poverty and Suburbanization Have Impacted Public Health

Is the Land of Plenty starving?

Of the nearly 323 million individuals who live in the United States, almost seven percent make their home in a food desert. That means more than 23 million Americans, including millions of children, are without consistent or easy access to fresh, nutrient-dense meals and groceries.1 It’s an alarming trend that has accelerated with other changes in modern cities, including suburbanization, growing socioeconomic inequality and increasingly inadequate public transportation. Some of the traumatic effects these food deserts have on public health include growing rates of chronic disease and obesity.

But what exactly is a food desert? How have they come to be so pervasive in America? And what are the most effective solutions to counteract their destructive impact?

Life in America’s Food Deserts

Defined as parts of the country that are devoid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods2, the emergence of food deserts is often attributed to the postwar growth of suburbs and the accompanying increase in private transportation.3 In the 1950s and 1960s, suburbanization accelerated due to a host of factors, including the post-World War II housing shortage that resulted in new suburban developments, discriminatory housing policies that fostered “white flight” to the new suburbs, and American car companies’ successful lobbying against public transportation as these suburbs were built. As white upper- and middle-class Americans began to move away from city centers into more suburban, automobile-centric areas, they were quickly followed by major grocery chains. The result? An unfolding urban crisis that became rampant by the 1980s and left the low-income population that remained in major cities with rapidly declining access to quality grocery options.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified at least 6,500 food desert tracts or low-access communities in the U.S., in which at least a third of the area residents are a mile or more from a major supermarket (or in rural areas, more than 10 miles from one).2 The Department of Agriculture has produced an interactive map allowing users to track the evolution of these regions over a five-year period and observe which areas of the country are most threatened by them.

But the negative impacts of this geographical trend extend beyond hunger—also known as food insecurity1—because this issue is larger than a single meal. Food deserts greatly impact the health and cumulative quality of life for a significant portion of Americans. They also contribute to growing—and costly—health disparities between urban residents from different racial groups and income levels.

Recognizing a Food Desert’s Impact on Public Health

For low-income individuals who find themselves residing in a food desert, the primary sources of sustenance are often fast food restaurants or nearby corner stores, where the available options are inexpensive and easy to obtain but almost always high in sugar, fat and salt.

Unfortunately, diets that consist largely or entirely of these processed foods offer little nutritional density or dietary benefit and often result in higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.4 The ubiquity of such life-threatening conditions leads in turn to shorter lifespans on average throughout America’s food deserts, and it also carries a high price tag for the surrounding community and local healthcare system.

According to the USDA, up to $71 billion is spent annually to treat chronic diseases that could be managed or alleviated entirely by a healthy diet. In the case of food desert communities, residents dealing with these diseases often cannot afford treatment and those costs end up being absorbed by the local system.5

Is It Possible to Eliminate Food Deserts?

Farmers, entrepreneurs, community leaders, food policy groups, and representatives of state and federal governments have long explored possible solutions to America’s food desert crisis.

Federally, legislation like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) has contributed to a national effort to build and equip food retailers, including grocery stores, convenience marts and farmer’s markets, that provide healthy food and groceries to underserved areas. Between 2011 and 2016, HFFI provided more than $51.8 million in funding to these efforts.6

Elsewhere, entrepreneurial minds and local policy changes have led to the creation of mobile grocery stores, community-supported agriculture (CSA) deliveries7 and affordable ready-to-eat meals that offer a healthy alternative to fast food.8 In Chester, Pennsylvania, one enterprising community leader created the nation’s first nonprofit grocery store, which carries stock that emphasizes healthy options, offers targeted discounts, and accepts public assistance programs like SNAP and WIC.9 Many farmers markets in cities across the U.S. also accept public assistance programs.

Looking Toward a Future of Food Oases

Research today regarding the overall impact of current food desert solutions is limited because efforts to curb their effects are relatively young. Still, federal acknowledgement of this traumatic and widespread issue and community efforts to alleviate it are important. In addition to offering grocery store and restaurant solutions, local groups like the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in Baltimore teach food desert residents how to shop on a budget and uncover their most accessible options for nutrition and support.10 Every effort, no matter how seemingly small, contributes to alleviating this critical health crisis.

Explore the vast importance of understanding public health and its global impact, and consider how an online Master of Public Health could help you lead new conversations about how to transform America’s food deserts into food oases.

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