Real Talk Q&A: How We Can Transform A Food Desert Into An Oasis
“The existence of food deserts...compromises the economic vitality of neighborhoods..."
It’s the start of another new year, and many of us are newly dedicated to creating a healthier lifestyle. But with food deserts dominating urban African-American communities around the nation, adopting a better diet requires more than a resolution. A 2009 USDA study found that 23.5 million people live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket, and only 8% of Black folk have a grocery store in their Census tract, versus 31% of whites. Access to healthy food is directly tied to well being. We sat down with Mary M. Lee, Deputy Director of, PolicyLink, a national research and action institute that advocates for economic and social equity, to explore real strategies that will ensure we all have access to nutritious food in our own neighborhoods.
Loop 21: How do you define a food desert?
Mary Lee: The simple definition of the term is a community with limited or no access to healthy foods. There are food deserts in Chicago, Louisville, Detroit, Los Angeles and many other areas. But some controversy has been associated with the use of the term. Particularly in cities and urban areas, people look around and see places selling food, and dispute the food desert label. So let’s unpack the definition. First, access in this sense has several meanings. Accessible means a geographic location that shoppers of all income levels can easily reach. Too many people—particularly those living in low income communities and communities of color—cannot walk to a store in their neighborhood that sells healthy foods, there is no public transportation that can get them to those stores without long rides and several transfers. Distance becomes a factor even for those with cars, as the high cost of gas ultimately makes the food more expensive. Therefore, accessible also means affordable—because if the price is prohibitive, consumers go without. In low-income areas and communities of color, if grocery stores are present at all, prices are actually likely to be higher than in more affluent areas. At the same time, the quality of the food in those stores is likely to be inferior, with very little variety. These characteristics are also part of access—food is not accessible if it is spoiled, or if the brand you need is not available. Along with accessible, my initial definition includes the concept of healthy, so we must also consider what healthy means. Basically, it is food that is fresh rather than processed, and that has little or no sodium or sugar. Again, variety is an issue in defining healthy food: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, diary, lean fish, meat, poultry.
This type of food can be nearly impossible to find in a food desert, but unfortunately these same areas are routinely inundated with fast food restaurants, convenience and liquor stores that offer foods fried in saturated fat, highly processed snack foods, sweetened sodas and alcohol, all at rock bottom prices. The combination of not enough healthy food and too much unhealthy food has long-term consequences that are proving to be lethal to the health of community residents and the vitality of their neighborhoods. Although it has typically been applied to urban areas, rural communities are often food deserts as well. Accessing retail food stores, and public transportation, can be a particular challenge for low-income residents of isolated rural areas. The irony is that many of these rural areas are the agricultural hubs of the nation. But the farm workers who harvest the produce that is shipped to stores across the country may be hard pressed to find a store nearby, and when they do, they pay a premium price for the food—more than customers of suburban stores far from the fields are likely to pay.
Loop 21: What is the history of food deserts in this country’s urban neighborhoods?
Mary Lee: The history of food deserts in urban areas parallels the legacy of structural racism and racially motivated policy decisions that have shaped our communities since the U.S. was founded: Native Americans forced off their land, Africans abducted and enslaved, Chinese laborers imported and then confined in designated areas, Mexican territory seized and citizenship denied, Japanese forced into internment camps, and on and on. The vestiges of these injustices are visible in the communities we live in today: neighborhoods that are on “the wrong side of the tracks” or the other side of the highway. These areas are isolated and underserved. They are disadvantaged by design. So the same neighborhoods that must contend with inadequate housing, troubled schools, crime, and polluted air also lack parks, playgrounds, health clinics, public transportation… and grocery stores selling healthy food. Whether the cause was public or private dis-investment, poor zoning and land use decisions, “white flight” or official neglect, these neighborhoods have been left to cope with the cumulative impact of policies and customs rooted in racial attitudes that were the prevailing view decades ago.
Loop 21: Why do food deserts disproportionately affect people of color?
Mary Lee: Communities throughout the nation, in both rural and urban areas, remain highly segregated by race. Even when you control for income, people of color are likely to live in segregated areas. This is particularly true for African Americans. And the neighborhoods that people of color live in are also more likely to suffer from the disadvantages already noted here, including the lack of healthy food options. By contrast, an array of food retailers, including supermarkets, organic food stores and famers markets have flocked to affluent white areas. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, whites fled from urban areas and into the suburbs, and supermarkets followed, putting in motion a trend that has only recently begun to subside. Accordingly, eliminating food deserts is a matter of equity. Unless access to healthy food is increased, our food system will remain inherently inequitable.
Loop 21: How do food deserts negatively affect African-American communities and the people in them?
Mary Lee: The obesity crisis is hitting African Americans harder than other racial group. More than 35% of African American adults and 41% of African American children are overweight or obese according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the consequences are deadly: poor diet and inadequate activity have become the second leading cause of death in the U.S. Grocery stores are one of many essentials that are too often missing from African-American neighborhoods. The food desert phenomenon is a stark illustration of the fact that where you live affects your health. If you live in a community with parks and playgrounds, economic opportunity and good jobs, good schools, clean air, safe streets and grocery stores selling healthy foods, you are likely to thrive. If your neighborhood lacks these elements you are more likely to suffer from obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease, or to die of a stroke or cancer. The existence of food deserts not only threatens the health of individuals but compromises the economic vitality of neighborhoods as well. Residents of food deserts pay more for the food they buy, either because they must add the time and expense of traveling to stores in other areas to their food costs; or because nearby convenience stores and liquor stores charge more.
Neighborhoods that lack grocery stores or other healthy food retailers lose out on direct economic benefits that stores generate, such as jobs, local and regional economic activity, and local and state tax revenues. The loss of tax revenues is particularly significant for low-income communities, as local and state taxes go toward the public services these communities desperately need: education, health care, transportation, public assistance programs and public safety. There are also indirect benefits that can be derived from the presence of healthy food retailers. Well-maintained and well-stocked grocery stores act as anchors for commercial development and shopping plazas, and can spur neighborhood revitalization. New food retail stores can be located on the vacant or abandoned lots, or on decimated commercial corridors that are found in too many African-American neighborhoods. This is the type of economic renewal that can reinvigorate a workforce and strengthen housing markets. For African-Americans who fought hard for the right to become homeowners, it is particularly crucial to protect and preserve the value of single-family homes. A home is likely to be the single greatest asset a low or moderate income homeowner will ever have, and it is still likely to be the best way for that household to generate wealth. Food deserts are an economic drain that compromise the residential property values of the surrounding neighborhoods, and cause financial stagnation for adjacent businesses as well
Loop 21: What actually works to reverse food deserts?
Mary Lee: The good news is that several promising practices and innovative strategies are beginning to yield results in communities battling food deserts across the nation. PolicyLink recently published a report entitled Healthy Food, Healthy Communities, which profiles several of those efforts, including fresh food financing initiatives that help attract new stores to underserved areas, and programs designed to help existing corner stores and neighborhood markets upgrade the quality and variety of products they offer. In many places, convenience stores and liquor stores are undergoing “makeovers” with the support and involvement of community residents, often led by youth. Another strategy is Urban Agriculture, including farmers markets, community gardens, school gardens and community supported agriculture. Linking these approaches to public benefits programs, such as EBT, WIC and SNAP can increase their effectiveness.
Loop 21: How can increasing access to healthy food improve the economy in our neighborhoods?
Mary Lee: Again, one of the direct benefits of healthy food retailers is jobs. A large, full-service supermarket can create between 100 and 200 jobs. And as noted earlier, healthy food retailers can revitalize communities by upgrading commercial corridors and generating taxes. Note that this economic infusion need not just come from the purchases made by area residents. Healthy food retailers such as grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, food stands and vendor trucks can also make neighborhoods a destination for shoppers from other communities, and those seeking new entertainment and recreation options. Those visitors are also likely to patronize other businesses and make non-food purchases while they are in the area, creating a multiplier effect for the local economy.
Loop 21: How can increasing access to healthy food improve the sense of community in our neighborhoods?
Mary Lee: Food is community. It is a common denominator for people of various cultures and traditions. Food brings people together to celebrate, to grieve, to commemorate, to renew. Improving the quality and variety of the food in neighborhoods will improve the health of individuals, and will also nurture residents’ collective self-image of their community. Healthy food retailers such as grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, food stands and vendor trucks can also make neighborhoods a destination for shoppers, and those seeking entertainment and recreation, making healthy food retail an economic engine for the neighborhood.
Loop 21: What is one step a reader can take, today, to help bring healthy food to a food desert?
Mary Lee: There is one essential step: take action! But there are many ways to do it. Here are a few examples that readers can consider:
- They can work with their neighbors to mobilize and launch an effort to reshape their local food system.
- They can research what is working in other communities and set priorities for the type of healthy food retail that will meet their needs.
- They can meet with local and regional officials and agencies to insist on policy changes that will support the development of new stores, the renovation of existing stores and the expansion of other types of food retail.
- They can form food policy councils: local bodies made up of residents and community stakeholders who examine their local food system and undertake efforts to improve it. There are now over 100 such groups in operation across the country.
- They can advocate for improving the availability of transportation to help residents reach healthy food retailers.
They can map existing stores, identify gaps and determine where new stores should be located
Loop 21: What should we be pushing the government to do to rectify this? How?
Mary Lee: The answer to this question really depends on what level of government you are focusing on. At the federal level, improving healthy food access for low-income families has been a prominent goal of the Obama Administration since President Obama took office, and is reflected in the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Leadership and determination from the administration and Congress have created several important opportunities. Foremost among them is the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which attracts investment in underserved communities by providing critical loan and grant financing. In his fiscal year 2011 budget, President Barack Obama proposed the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, calling for more than $400 million in investments in new and expanded supermarkets, farmers markets and other food stores that communities want and need. These resources help fresh food retailers overcome the higher initial barriers to entry into underserved, low-income rural, suburban, and urban areas. Several state and local food financing initiatives are also underway in places such as Pennsylvania (which developed the first such effort), New York, California and Louisiana. Certainly government at all levels should be encouraged to continue to support these important programs. But in addition to large scale financing measures, government can take other actions. Examples include updating local land use codes to make it easier to open farmers’ markets or plant community gardens; identifying vacant lots or surplus property that can be utilized for new stores, community gardens or farmers’ markets; and restricting new fast food outlets in areas that are already saturated by such uses. It really comes down to the unique needs of each community and the priorities that community members identify.
Loop 21: Mary Lee: What role should food deserts play in the upcoming election?
Mary Lee: Given the extent of the obesity crisis, there is an urgent need to increase access to healthy food and eliminate food deserts. Since elections will be occurring soon at the federal, state and local levels, this is an opportune time to question candidates about their ideas and determine the level of their knowledge of the extent of the problem and the depth of their commitment to working with communities to take on this challenge.
Loop 21: Is there anything else our readers need to know about eliminating food deserts in Black communities?
Mary Lee: Yes—fortunately there is a lot of excellent information available on expanding access to healthy food in under-served communities. For example, the Detroit Black Food Security Organization is an amazing resource. This group not only advocates for food justice and the elimination of racism in the local food system, but is engaged in urban agriculture and pioneered the formation of Detroit’s Food Policy Council. In addition, I invite readers to look to the PolicyLink website for additional information and ideas. PolicyLink has authored a number of reports on issues of making healthy food accessible and eliminating inequitable food polices. These include:
- Healthy Food, Healthy Communities
- The Grocery Gap
- Healthy Food for All
- Grocery Store Attraction Strategies
- Why Place and Race Matter
All of these reports are available free. You will also find a variety of toolkits, case studies that describe promising practices underway in neighborhoods across the country, and updates on policy and legislative measures.
Do you live in a food desert? Have a story about how you’re helping to bring healthy food to your community? Tell us in the comments.