Many of us have the opportunity to make healthy or unhealthy choices about the foods we eat every day. But for about 29.7 million Americans living in low-income areas more than a mile from a supermarket, healthy options may be scarce. They live in “food deserts.”
What makes a food desert?
The US Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities are served mainly by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that don’t typically offer healthy, affordable food options.
Food deserts in urban areas are defined as no supermarkets or full-service food retailers within a 1-mile radius; rural areas are defined by a 10-mile marker because the population is more sparsely distributed.
In the absence of convenient access to healthy food, people in food deserts may pay higher prices for lowerquality food at corner stores and fast food restaurants. They may also need to travel great distances to the nearest supermarket, a challenge for the 2.1 million households without a vehicle who live in a food desert.
Who lives in food deserts?
According to the USDA, food deserts have a greater concentration of minorities — 53 percent more in their most recent analysis. One multistate study found that eight percent of African-Americans live in a census tract with at least one supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. A study of census data from 2000 concluded that ZIP codes in predominantly African-American neighborhoods had about half the number of chain supermarkets compared to predominantly white neighborhoods, and predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods had about a third as many chain supermarkets as non-Hispanic neighborhoods.
More than 11 million people who are further than 1 mile from a large grocery store are low-income — which was defined in 2000 as a household income less than $17,050 for a family of four. National survey data from 2005-2009 reported that poverty was prevalent in food deserts and a larger percentage of households was on some form of public assistance. Unemployment was also higher in food deserts than non-food desserts.
And as a result
People in food deserts suffer from higher rates of obesity and other chronic, diet-related diseases.
A 2006 study of more than 10,000 adults found that for those living in neighborhoods with supermarkets and grocery stores, 21 percent were obese and 60 percent were overweight compared to 32 percent obese and 72.5 percent overweight for those living in neighborhoods with access to only convenience stores.
In a survey of diabetic adults in East Harlem in New York, 40 percent of respondents said that they did not follow the recommended diet because those foods were more expensive in their neighborhood stores. Many said that foods for people with diabetes were not available at their local markets. Researchers found that people with more large supermarkets in their neighborhoods had greater availability of fresh fruit and green vegetables — a critical component of a heart-healthy diet.
And it’s not just that way in urban areas. West Virginia and Mississippi have the highest rate of obesity of any states. A 2006 study found that adults in rural Mississippi food deserts are 23 percent less likely to eat the recommended fruit and vegetables than those in counties with supermarkets.
What is being done
A key goal of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is to eradicate food deserts by providing incentives to encourage supermarkets to open in these neighborhoods. But opening stores in food deserts is difficult because of a host of financial obstacles: land development costs, employee training, insurance and more.
Financing programs have cropped up across the country. In New York, a program called the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund has provided $30 million in financing since 2011. The fund is administered by the nonprofit Low Income Investment Fund with its partners The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund. This program, along with some in New Jersey and Colorado, were modeled after the muchlauded Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, also led by The Food Trust, The Reinvestment Fund and the Urban Affairs Coalition.
The goal of all these programs is to make it easier to develop full-service food retailers. That can happen through better loan terms, subsidies, tax incentives and a host of other financial packages. In Pennsylvania, the financing program approved funding for 88 new and expanded markets in the six years of the program.
In New Orleans, the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, a city program, was part of the financing that helped open several stores in target areas in 2013-2015. These included the reopening of Circle Food Store. The store, in the 7th Ward devastated by Hurricane Katrina, is a local landmark — as well as a needed mainstay of fresh food. A Tulane University study in 2014 showed that the number of supermarkets in New Orleans in 2014 had returned to more than 30 after having been less than half of that in 2007, having dropped dramatically after Katrina.
According to Clyde W. Yancy, past president of the American Heart Association, the focus should be on making it easier — and more attractive — for people to eat healthy food, by increasing healthy food access and addressing the role food marketing plays in driving people’s choices.
Bottom line, the proliferation of unhealthy but easily accessible foods, especially in low-income and minority communities, is driving the obesity epidemic.
Voices for Healthy Kids
Voices for Healthy Kids (VHK) is a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working to engage, organize and mobilize people to improve the health of their communities and to help all children grow up at a healthy weight.
Proximity to neighborhood supermarkets is associated with healthier living and lower body weight. Voices for Healthy Kids is dedicated to improving access to affordable healthy foods for all children and families by increasing the number of healthy food outlets, such as grocery stores and corner stores, in underserved communities.
For example, more than 1 million Alabamians — including a half-million children — live in areas without easy access to fresh and healthy food, due to a lack of grocery stores. That places Alabama in the top ten states in the nation, in terms of a lack of access to healthy foods.
But a group of health advocates, under the leadership of Voices for Alabama’s Children (VFAC), is working to change those statistics by creating a healthy foods access fund. The state-based program would establish a revolving-loan program that would provide financial incentives to grocers and other food retailers, to locate in communities that have low or no access to healthy foods.
Voices for Healthy Kids has also launched healthy food access initiatives in Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Ohio. Read more about these efforts as well as others focused on increasing physical activity, improving the nutritional quality of snacks and beverages in schools and protecting children from marketing for unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened drinks in the 2015 Progress Report for Voices for Healthy Kids.
A New Oasis in a Former Food Desert
Adesert is not what you’d expect an hour north of New York City. But that’s exactly what Lisa Berrios and Albert Rodriguez discovered years after moving to the mountain-bound village of Highland Falls.
When the one dilapidated grocery store finally folded, the area instantly became a food desert. “We were without a store for more than two years,” said Berrios, whose family was used to food stands and stores within walking distance all over the city. “We had no access to healthy, fresh food. We live in a valley and to get to a store, you would have to drive 10 to 15 miles and cross a bridge or a mountain.”
If snow, calamity or a lack of transportation made the trip impossible, then the area’s 5,500 residents were out of luck.
Berrios and her husband, who comes from a family of candy store, luncheonette and grocery operators in the Bronx, used financing from the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, a state program, to transform that old store into their MyTown Marketplace. The 12,000-squarefoot market has nine aisles and a double aisle dedicated solely to produce, its top-selling department. Today, the family business includes their 21-year-old son, Alex, as well as eight full-time and 19 part-time employees, a boon for the town’s health and economy.
“Today, we are the main staple of the community,” she said. “Just during this past winter storm, every person that came by said ‘thank God you guys were here.’ Everyone in this town can walk to this store.”
“If you give access to people, you are giving them the opportunity to eat better,” she said. “If they can’t get to it and it’s not available, they are going to go for whatever they can.”