By Angela Li
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” This void is predominantly the result of limited accessibility to healthy food providers, or no accessibility at all; thus, reliance on processed foods increases. This void is, instead, filled with cheaper convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Food deserts largely hurt rural, marginalized, vulnerable, and low-income communities who do not have the financial resources to allow for healthy eating without burdening themselves. Nutritious foods often have drastically different price points than more obtainable, processed foods. Consequently, residents of food deserts have diets laden with high fat, sugar, and sodium, ultimately culminating in poor health outcomes. This lack of healthy foods affects how people choose their foods: rather than for health and nourishment, residents are restricted to only what foods are available to them, what foods are cost effective.
Additionally, food deserts cannot accommodate those with specific allergies, dietary restrictions, or a need for culturally distinct items. Low-income communities also do not have the financial ability to choose to move into areas that offer better food choices. There are also the issues of transportation, time, and travel. People living in food deserts face obstacles such as unsafe areas to travel in, poor or erratic sources of transport, minimal time to even go grocery shopping due to work, single parenthood, lack of time for constant meal preparation. Food deserts further contribute to health disparities that align with historically enabled injustices within the political, social, cultural, and economic realms. The minorities that these injustices marginalize are disproportionately negatively affected.
The development of food deserts can be contributed to development of larger chain stores, demographic changes, and land fragmentation. Large chain stores want to be in communities that have residents who can assuredly be profited off of. Economic segregation within American cities, with wealthier residents moving out of inner cities, led to a lower median income that could not sustain larger supermarkets. In some areas, land is broken up to make it easier to sell, and these smaller plots of land are unsuited for the building of large supermarkets. The growth of large chain stores, chains with better quality and variety of foods, in affluent parts outside of the inner cities can attract consumers away from smaller and independent stores, forcing their closure. Only those with reliable access to transportation are able to take advantage. However, underlying these reasonings is all the pervasive theme of racism, prejudice, and discrimination that make developers and policy unable and unwilling, respectively, for construction in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, these neighborhoods are hurt disproportionally by food deserts and inevitable mortality, morbidity, and health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, all of which are further exacerbated by the strains of poverty. Even if supermarkets and grocery stores are built in food deserts, residents often feel out of place— while residents now have greater access to nutritious food, whether they will be welcomed by these stores is another issue.
Behavioral health campaigns focused on schools— incentivizing schools to increase healthy foods served in schools and reducing food advertisements targeting children— are possible solutions to effect change early on, to change the precedent with which students view food. Food deserts also provide another crucial point in the never ending list of reasons to improve infrastructure and to better public transportation. Cities can also incentivize companies themselves through tax benefits and changed zoning codes to move into areas that need healthier foods. Communities can build community gardens and organize local farmers markets.
Increasing health education can empower residents with the awareness of the necessity of healthy food options. But on a broader fundamental socioeconomic level, combating income inequality and poverty will have the best long-term solution.
About The Global Health Soap Box
This blog evokes the spirit of UC Berkeley -- the home of the Free Speech Movement. The Global Heath Soap Box provides a platform for GlobeMed at Berkeley chapter members to explore and discuss their thoughts on relevant public health issues. Whether it's an expansion on what we discuss in ghUs or a topic of interest--The Global Health Soap Box covers a wide range of topics.