Real Talk Q&A: How We Can Transform A Food Desert Into An Oasis
1 year ago
“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?