Barren: Defining Food Deserts and What We Can Do About Them
A food desert is defined as a geographical area that lacks convenient, affordable and healthy foods (namely fresh fruits and vegetables). In our newest series our Head of Production & Sustainability, Valerie Hawks, takes a closer look at Food Deserts and what we can do about them.
The USDA considers a food desert an area with “no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious options within one mile”. In rural America, a food desert is defined as 10 miles or more from the nearest market. Not surprisingly, food deserts are disproportionately found in low income, high-poverty areas. This includes areas of smaller, rural populations, communities with higher rates of vacant or abandoned homes, lower education and higher rates of unemployment. The U.S Department of Agriculture food access research atlas estimates that 17.1 million people, 1 in 8 Americans, or 5.6% of the U.S population live in a food desert. 13 million of these people are children.
In addition to access to food and the distance, vehicle availability and availability of public transportation can contribute to designating a neighborhood or entire community a food desert. If it is difficult financially or distance-wise to get to a store, if it involves a long walk to a bus, or multiple buses, this can play a role in the designation. Despite the staggering number of food deserts reported in American communities, some even in bustling cities, underreporting may be a hindrance in providing an accurate picture of the breadth of America’s food disparity. The North American Industry Classification System places small corner grocery stores, the ones that sell slushies and packaged food, in the same category as grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods. A bowl of bananas at the register is not enough to constitute supporting a healthy diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables.
Access to food is not the only issue in a food desert. Healthy food costs more. Healthy diets, on average can cost $1.50 more per day than a diet of processed food. For families that are already struggling, this can be unsustainable, and in many cases altogether unattainable. Cheaper, readily available options will win out more often than not. Food deserts create extra barriers for already struggling people and families and create a cycle within poverty where their health is legitimately at risk.
The COVID 19 pandemic put a spotlight on the inequities around food in the US. Many people lost their jobs, children lost school lunches, and supply chain issues compounded food insecurity rates. From February 2020 to May 2020, food insecurity rates actually doubled among American households. Households with children saw that same rate triple. While the measurement and statistics of defining a food desert is nuanced, these numbers make it clear that there is a very real problem.
As we ride the wave of sustainable thinking that has encompassed everything from our personal lives to the brands we buy and our habits as consumers, we can not just focus solely on the low hanging fruit of recycling and composting and lowering our carbon footprint. Human sustainability is a very real concern that can not be overlooked. We can not be a truly sustainable society when many among us do not have the basic necessities for a healthy life. Per the United Nations, extreme hunger and malnutrition remains a barrier to sustainability and creates a trap from which people cannot easily escape. Hunger and malnutrition mean less productive individuals, who are more prone to disease and thus often unable to earn more and improve their livelihoods. A world with zero hunger can positively impact our economies, health, education, equality and social development.
So what can we do about it?
Strategies for alleviating food insecurity include incentivizing grocery stores and supermarkets in underserved communities through tax credits. Municipal programs funded by the government that can support small neighborhood stores and farmers markets are very important in countering the lack of, and the high cost of, nutritious food. As a consumer and a voter, you can use your power to make businesses and governments enact changes that can make a difference. In your own life, you can support local farmers and markets, and also be mindful of food waste.
Are there food deserts near you? Click here to find out.
Author: Valerie Hawks, Head of Production & Sustainability