If any of us were forced to live in a desert we’d probably find trying to survive in a barren, desolate wasteland difficult. But through a series of public policies and private sector decisions, millions of mostly low-income and minority families in America have been condemned to subsist in vast urban “food deserts” that pose serious health threats to their children. Food deserts, areas with no or distant grocery stores, are generally in communities where most residents can buy food only at “convenience” stores, liquor stores, gas stations, or fast food restaurants that sell foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. Getting to stores that offer a greater variety of foods is often challenging since many families lack cars and many city and state governments have cut back on investments in public transportation. When many Americans are resolving to eat more healthfully in the new year, children and families living in “food deserts” often lack that choice.
The health and vitality of people living in many urban neighborhoods can differ from block to block depending on how near or far they are to a grocery store or supermarket that offers reasonably priced fresh fruits and vegetables that are low in calories and nutritionally dense. In many urban neighborhoods, it’s easier to buy a pint of liquor, a fried chicken wing, or a gun than a fresh tomato. The failure of supermarket chains to locate stores that offer fresh fruits and vegetables in inner-city communities—a form of food redlining—has had a profound impact on the nutrition, health, and well-being of families lacking cars or access to public transportation to get to well-stocked grocery stores. As a consequence, children growing up in families trapped in food desert zip codes are at risk of becoming obese and developing early hypertension and full-blown high blood pressure that can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Food deserts originated with the urban White flight of the 1960s and 1970s. When White, middle-class residents left cities for the suburbs, grocery stores followed, according to PolicyLink, a national nonprofit focused on social and economic inequities. In urban communities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and from Detroit to Houston, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as far as the nearest fast food restaurant. About 400,000 Chicago residents live in areas with an imbalance of food choices where there are nearby fast food restaurants but no or distant grocery stores.
A 2003 University of Michigan study of Detroit supermarkets found there were only five grocery stores in Detroit larger than 20,000 square feet. And while 24 percent of Washington, D.C.’s population lives in the predominantly Black areas east of the Anacostia River, only 15 percent of the city’s 360 food stores are there. Nationally, the typical low-income neighborhood has 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher-income neighborhoods. The problem is not only limited to urban areas; food deserts are also common in many rural communities. Across the country, too many families are forced to do their food shopping among convenience store shelves stocked with overpriced, highly processed fatty food with low nutritional value that often has passed its expiration date. In stores like these, staples such as milk can cost two dollars more than at a supermarket.
It’s good to know that a number of groups are addressing this problem. The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust is working with school systems to provide healthy food and offering corner stores financing to stock healthy food and upgrade their refrigeration systems to better preserve fruits and vegetables. Various organizations are seeking federal and local anti-obesity funding to replicate this effort. Such efforts can make a real difference. In a 2002 study, University of North Carolina researchers found African Americans ate an average of 32 percent more fruits and vegetables for each supermarket in their census tract.
Access to nutritious food is a matter of social justice. We must follow the lead of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose community garden at the White House has focused public attention on better nutrition as part of a national movement to improve children’s health and prevent obesity and diabetes. If we fail to ensure our children receive better nutrition, our nation will pay a heavy price over time in increased rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, resulting in the loss of resources and productivity. As legislators struggle to reform our nation’s health care system and contain its skyrocketing costs, addressing the problem of access to nutritious food is one obvious step we must take.