There is a growing body of research examining the causes and consequences of food inequality in America. The term “food desert” was coined to describe the issues of food inequality which occur geographically. Food deserts can present in urban areas where food retailers are plentiful or in rural areas where consumers are separated by great distances from food retailers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as a location in which 1/3 of the population live more than 1 mile from the closest large supermarket in an urban neighborhood, or more than 10 miles in a rural area. The USDA does not count farmer’s markets, small groceries stores, health food stores or convenient stores.
Food equality is achieved per the USDA, when a population has easy access to affordable and nutritious foods. According to the USDA, access and affordability is best achieved by larger supermarkets because they offer the lowest prices and the greatest variety. It is important to note that the price of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up while the cost of processed foods have declined in recent years.
In Texas where I live, we have the largest supermarket gap in the country or the lowest number of supermarkets per capita. For example, supermarket access in Houston would need to increase by 185 stores to meet the needs of the total cities population. Over 26% of Texas rural counties are classified as food deserts based on year 2000 statistics, according to the USDA reports.
Food deserts are important because they are linked to diet related diseases, like diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, cardiac arrest and strokes. Areas where food deserts exist have the highest incidence of obesity among adults and children. Overweight children are 70% more likely to grow up to be overweight adults. These chronic diseases affect a state’s health care costs and productivity levels. For example, well-nourished healthy kids attend school regularly and achieve higher academic scores.
The federal government under the Obama administration, led by the first lady stress the importance of supporting food access. However, the federal definition of food desert limit the ability of local municipalities to utilize federal programs and make them work at the local level. City Mayors have partitioned the federal government to reduce the distance that classify as a food desert from 1 mile to a ½ mile or even a ¼ mile to a supermarket.
The City of Baltimore in conjunction with Johns Hopkins determined 4 criteria that defined a food desert in its city:
- Distance to supermarket
- Median household income
- Quality and availability of healthy food in all food stores
The Baltimore model emphasize the importance of local communities in decided what works best for their specific area.
Researchers acknowledge that adding more supermarkets is only part of the solution. Local governments need to enlist the support and input from the community to be served. Difference communities have varying needs, cultural norms and habits centered on food choices. If local governments do not involve the residents of the community, the food policies are likely to be ineffective and fail.
Local governments need to take a comprehensive approach when deciding new food policies. There are different examples all over the country and local municipalities should share information across borders. To increase success and sustainability; both comprehensive and collaboration must be employed.
Municipalities need to examine the causal effects of limited access to food and health outcomes, instead of just seeking to increase the number of supermarkets in an area. Opening more supermarkets without understanding how the difference in cost for fruits and veggies versus unhealthy foods affect outcomes creates misaligned policies. Unhealthy foods tend to cost less than healthier options, like fruits and vegetables. More supermarkets does not ensure residence will make better food choices. Campaigns geared toward increasing consumption of more fruits and vegetables may need to provide nutritional education, food preparation classes and education on health outcomes associated with food choices.
It is important that local governments seek the input of the community to be served prior to implementing any new strategy. Every community is different when examining access and affordability to food. Local governments should work to create specific solutions for the residents of their community to achieve successful outcomes. Several factors need to be examined and understood prior to opening a new food outlet; cultural identity of the area, cultural foods consumed, knowledge of nutrition, transportation needs and access points of shopping.
A common error is assuming residents purchase their groceries in their neighborhood. It is true that people generally shop close to home. It is also true that people make shopping decision based on a number criteria. In some cases people shop where they work, then transport the groceries home. In other cases people may prefer to shop in an area where they previously lived or grew up. Transportation concerns increase the need for adequate public transportation and that buses or trains are modified to provide room for grocery bags.
Food deserts have been linked to major health concerns in the country. However, simply increasing the access to food may not achieve the desired results of improving health outcomes. Studies show that increasing access doesn’t improve healthy food consumption. Supermarkets do provide residence with better healthy food choices, they also provide better access to unhealthy food choices especially if there are cost concerns. Fruits and vegetables tend to cost more than less healthy options. Therefore some residents may choose to shop elsewhere because of a fear of spending more at a supermarket.
The goal of increasing access of affordable food must remain at the forefront of decision makers. Often municipal plans diverge with the needs of the local populations. Municipal leaders may misinterpret the goal in terms of economic development such as more supermarkets and retail outlets. Whereas the real issue is better access to healthier foods.
City planners, local stakeholders and residents need to converge on an understanding of the causal link between availability, price and convenience of healthy foods and health outcomes. By linking health outcome specific to the area served effective food policies can be carried forward. Food policy initiatives must be measureable to determine their effectiveness in resolving the criteria set forward by all stakeholders.
Mulligan, J., Tsai, P., Whitacre, P., National Research Council, (. (U.S.), & Institute of Medicine, (. (U.S.). (2009). The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Cole, C. (2012). Access to healthy and affordable food is critical to good nutrition, Center for Public Policy Priorities. 1-4, Retrieved from http://library.cppp.org/research.php?aid=1184
Leib, E. B. (2013). All (Food) politics is local: increasing food access through local government action. Harvard Law & Policy Review, 7321.
Anderson, F. & Burau, K. (2015). Back to basics: Is civic agriculture the solution to food deserts in Texas? Open Journal of Social Sciences (3)82-89 doi.10.4236/jss.2015.35012