I moved to the Seattle area a week ago, and one of the first things that struck me, other than the constant rain and the resulting lush greenery that surrounds me, is the abundance of grocery stores and availability of fresh and healthy food options. A Google search shows over 10 grocery stores within a 1 to 2 mile radius from my house, all of which provide good healthy options where I can purchase fresh foods. There is even a farmer’s market nearby that is open during the summer months.
Although I am excited for all that I can explore when it comes to my meal planning and cooking, this food abundance made me think about people who do not have access to what I have and live in food deserts. By food deserts I do not mean the sweet kind that you eat after a meal, but the kind where people do not have access to fresh and healthy foods.
What is a Food Desert?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an urban or rural area that does not have ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. These are areas that do not have supermarkets, grocery stores, farmer’s market, or other healthy food providers, and either have no access to food at all or only offer convenience stores and fast food options (Gallagher, 2011). Food deserts also have fewer options for organic and naturally grown food (Food Empowerment Project, 2010). To qualify, an urban neighborhood need not have access to healthy food for at least 1 mile, and a rural area need not have access to healthy food for at least 10 miles. Food deserts typically occur in low-income communities or in low-access communities, although this is not always the case (USDA, n.d.). Anyone wanting to verify whether or not they live in a food desert can do so at the USDA website at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert.
I do not have to access the USDA website to know that I do not live in a food desert. It is clear I do not.
Rural Food Deserts
It is easy to understand how there could be food deserts in rural locations given that access to any type of grocery store or food outlet is hard simply considering distances. For instance, I moved to the Seattle area from a small town in Idaho with a population of a little over 45,000 people. Twin Falls, ID is not a food desert. In fact, within 2 miles there are a number of grocery stores and supermarkets, including Albertson’s, Fred Meyer, Smith’s, Walmart, WinCo, Costco, and many others. Although some offer better options than others, they all supply fresh and healthy food options.
The only limitation is access to organic food and produce. When I first moved to Twin Falls I initially felt like I had moved to a food desert. Clearly there is access to supermarkets and grocery stores, but in comparison to larger urban areas, the options of organic foods are limited. I had lived in larger cities in the past, and had gotten used to going to farmer’s markets and readily finding fresh and organic produce. But where I lived in Idaho, there are only two or three grocery stores that offer organic food, and produce options are limited to one island within the produce department. I got used to that, but relished the summer months that brought local farmers to the town with fresh produce. You can understand my delight in moving to the Seattle area, where I am in a food surplus.
Although I did not live in a food desert in Idaho, I was surrounded by many who are. The areas surrounding the city are agricultural areas that are quite rural. Often there are over 30 to 40 miles between cities or towns. As a result, many people live in low-access communities. It is common to see isolated houses or villages as you drive through the surrounding areas of Twin Falls. There are people who drive a few hours to get to a grocery store in Twin Falls, and when they do they have to shop for enough to last them for several weeks at a time.
Anyone who has been to an area similar to what surrounds Twin Falls knows that it is understandable to find food deserts in rural areas. But, the reality is that food deserts exist more frequently in urban locations than in rural ones. The USDA estimates that 75% of food deserts are in urban areas, and only 25% are in rural areas (USDA, n.d.).
Urban Food Deserts
The urban locations with some of the more predominant food deserts in the United States are New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, and New York (NewsOne Staff, 2011). In Chicago, over 600,000 people lived in food deserts, Detroit had over 550,000, and New York had around 3 million people in food deserts in 2008.
McMillan (2012) mentioned there were areas in New York where there were not enough grocery stores to meet the needs of the population. She stated that in the neighborhood of Washington Heights there was ½ sq ft of supermarket space per person living in the neighborhood, thus constituting this as a food desert (McMillan, 2012). Other areas include Harlem, Bronx, and Brooklyn (NewsOne Staff, 2011).
Why You Should Care About Food Deserts
Given the lack of access to healthy food options, and the resulting abundance of processed, sugary, and fatty foods in food deserts (Gallagher, 2011), food deserts are associated with higher rates of obesity and other health conditions that cost the United States healthcare system over $100 billion USD per year (NIFA, 2016).
Supporting initiatives that bring healthy food options to food deserts, such as developing school or urban gardens, food delivery programs, coupon or discount programs to farmer’s markets, or teaching low income families how to grow their own small garden, can help fight hunger and improve health (Food Empowerment Project, 2010). For instance there is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, the “Plant It, Grow It, Try It, Like It” by Southern University’s Agricultural Research & Extension Center, or the Virtual Supermarket in Baltimore. If you want to contribute, look for food and garden programs like this in your area and get involved or provide donations.
Food Empowerment Project. (2010). Shining a light on the valley of heart’s delight. Food Empowerment Project. Retrieved from http://www.foodispower.org/documents/FEP_Report_web_final.pdf
Gallagher, M. (2011). USDA defines food deserts. Nutrition Digest, 38(2). Retrieved from http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts
National Institute of Food and Agriculture. (2016). Providing affordable, healthy food options in food deserts. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved on November 7, 2016 from https://nifa.usda.gov/announcement/providing-affordable-healthy-food-options-food-deserts
NewsOne Staff. (2011). America’s worst 9 urban food deserts. NewsOne, Original. Retrieved on November 7, 2016 from http://newsone.com/1540235/americas-worst-9-urban-food-deserts/
McMillan, T. (2012). The American Way of Eating- Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table. New York, NY: Scribner.
United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.) Definition of a food desert. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Retrieved on November 7, 2016 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/DataFiles/Download_the_Data__62428//archived_documentation.pdf