Food Deserts

November 8th, 2011
Image © muhawi001 | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Life in a Food Desert

A quick look in my refrigerator and pantry tells me that it is time to go grocery shopping. Although never one of my favorite things, food shopping has become much more challenging now that I live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Once I could jump in the car, drive less than a mile, and be in a major supermarket. The vegetables and fruits were fresh, a bakery offered fresh breads, and a deli offered prepared food and a salad bar. I could be there and home again in half an hour.

However, both the time and the effort of food shopping have radically changed for me. I now live in a “food desert.” The closest two grocery stores are 12 miles away, and neither provides the same choices, the prices, or the freshness of my old supermarket. Going to the store for food now takes one-and-a-half to two hours.

Easy access to affordable and healthy food is something I miss. However, I do have a car and can drive the extra 20 to 30 miles needed to reach a store with more choices, fresher produce, and better prices. I am not poor, and although driving a distance to grocery shop is inconvenient and time-consuming, it is possible. My limitations are a result of a choice I have made to live where I do.

Understanding Food Deserts

Understanding food deserts begins by asking several key questions: What exactly is affordable and healthy food? What does it mean that someone has access to this food? Is it individual persons or geographic areas that lack access to this food? In the United States, 3.4 million households (or 3.2 percent) are located between a mile and a half mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a private vehicle, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). An additional 2.3 million households (2.2 percent) are located more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. The USDA also reports that 23.5 million people in the United States live more than a mile from a supermarket and reside in poverty areas (meaning areas where over 40 percent of the income levels are 200 percent below federal poverty thresholds). Out of that number, 11.5 million (or 4.1 percent of the US population) are considered to be “low-income people.”

For those who are poor, living in a food desert negatively affects their health, mortality, and financial resources as well as their time and energy.

USDA Studies Food Deserts

In 2008, Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill and directed the USDA to study food deserts. The bill defines a food desert as an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” Impetus for this study was the fact that obesity and diet-related diseases have become a major public health problem. Congress wanted to know if limited access to healthy, affordable food was a factor contributing to these problems.

The study focused on the question of access and not on whether people can afford food to sustain themselves. Although these two issues are closely related, only adequate access to food is the concern of the USDA report. Throughout the report, nutritious food is described as canned, frozen, or fresh fruits and vegetables; low-fat milk; and whole grains. According to former reports of the USDA, a family of four can eat a nutritious diet for $175.60 a week on the Low-Cost Food Plan.

Several factors determine the issue of access: the location being urban or rural, the availability of public or private transportation, and the general health of the shopper. In this report, access was defined interms of the distance of a mile.

The report found that access can be determined both in terms of individuals who do not have access to a supermarket and areas that do not include a supermarket. Studies of areas where poor people are clustered often leave out people who are poor but live in areas with better access. Seven major findings emerged from the study:

(1) Access to a supermarket is an issue for a relatively small percentage of households.
(2) The prices at supermarkets are lower than those at smaller stores.
(3) When they can, people from low-income households tend to shop where the prices are lower.
(4) Easy access to lots of food may contribute more to obesity than lack of access to healthy food. (5) Access to healthy, affordable food depends on availability and consumer demand, which have much to do with the kinds of food that are available.
(6) Food has been used as an impetus for the development of community resources such as farmers’ markets and community gardens.
(7) Further research is needed to study how food access, availability, and price affect the shopping and consumption habits of consumers.

Solutions for Food Deserts

The report identified two effective responses. One falls in the category of government incentive to promote the opening of new stores in areas known to be food deserts. The second option relates to taking action for the development of community resources.

Community Food Projects (CFP) are developed within low-income communities and address the needs within that specific food system. These projects encourage “a greater role for the entire food system, including local agriculture,” and they represent “a proactive approach to fighting hunger, economic and social justice, and environmental stewardship.” The USDA report found that such projects result in increasing the availability of healthy foods, encouraging local food marketing, supporting food entrepreneurship, and promoting healthy diets.

Windows on Food Deserts

As Christ’s people, we know that God has made us stewards over creation. That includes being stewards of a food supply with which God intends to feed all people. As we consider the reality of food deserts either in our own lives or in the lives of others, we have a variety of windows through which to view the challenges.

We can view food deserts as a social justice issue. There are people not far from our own neighborhoods who do not have access to healthy, affordable food. Our response can be one of action and advocacy. In the biblical tradition of Jesus and the prophets, we can speak out on behalf of the poor.

We can view food deserts as an eco-justice issue. There are many ways of bringing healthy food into neighborhoods that support sustainable farming practices. Our response can be one of action and of getting involved in the creation of such local responses as farmers’ markets and community gardens. We can stand with people who want to grow food in ways that do not harm the earth.

We can view food deserts through a personal lens either as someone who lives near a food desert or as someone who lives in a food desert. As someone who lives near one, we can consider our own eating habits and become better informed about the food issues that create and perpetuate food deserts. As someone who lives in a food desert, we can explore the options of healthy eating where we live and find creative solutions to the challenges.

My own eating and shopping habits have changed as I have adapted to living in a food desert. Local seafood and seasonal produce have become a larger part of my diet. I am using more whole grains, dried and canned fruits, frozen vegetables, and dried beans and legumes. I plan my meals much more carefully so that I only have to shop once a week. Next summer, I may even try out planting a garden.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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