A food desert sounds like a natural disaster – but it’s anything but natural.
Many who live near grocery stores and farmer’s markets, like me, have unknowingly taken our access to healthy, fresh produce for granted. In the United States, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it’s commonly assumed that anyone and everyone lives near a grocery store. Similarly, it seems like a no-brainer that the ability to choose readily available nutritious food, a necessity that greatly affects the quality of one’s life, (see Poor Nutrition) ought to be treated as a human right. Nevertheless, 6.8% of American children and their families live in areas all throughout the country that provide little to no access to nourishing food.
How do we tackle this issue? A good place to start is by creating more awareness.
Food is a Political Issue
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The United States’ modern agricultural food system largely relies on the fast-food industry, with the goal of making food quicker, cheaper, and bigger. The largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes, apples, pork, and tomatoes in the United States — McDonald’s — requires all of their food to taste the same, while the top 4 food companies (think Tyson and Monsanto) control 80% of the food market. Odds are, even if we’re not eating at a fast-food restaurant, we’re probably eating food produced by this system.
Did you know that items such as chips, soda, and candy are cheaper than fresh produce in United States supermarkets? Our food policies heavily subsidize commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat, with many of these former industry executives acting as the current government regulators. American consumers will not find a head of broccoli that they can purchase for 99 cents, but they can find a double McDonald’s cheeseburger at that price! It’s no secret that the United States suffers from an obesity epidemic. What many may not know is that the leading predictor of obesity is income level. This environment creates the perfect storm for “food insecurity,” or lacking the necessary resources to access healthy foods.
Food Deserts And Minorities
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According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35 million Americans faced food insecurity in 2019, with the rate rising to 1 in 4 households during the pandemic. These realities disproportionately affect low-income minority communities. Nationally, the rate of food insecurity for African-American households is more than double that of white households, while one in five Latinos are food insecure — compared with one in ten whites and one in eight Americans overall. In order to better understand this issue, we can’t just look at these as isolated facts. Instead, a larger political context is at work that allows for “food deserts” to flourish.
“Food deserts” are areas where access to budget-friendly, fresh produce is scarce or nonexistent due to a lack of nearby grocery stores. Experts estimate that about 23.5 million Americans live in low-income areas that are farther than 1 mile to the nearest supermarket. Obvious obstacles include inadequate access to transportation such as public transit, and supermarkets’ reluctance to move into poor neighborhoods.
Food deserts came about as a result of urban planning and housing practices that began during the 1930s housing shortage. This included redlining and yellow lining, a process where the government and private sector collaborated to limit mortgage lending to racial minorities, racial covenants in home deeds that limited sale and rental property to white Americans, whites being favored in federal housing subsidies, and homeowners associations that continue to deny access to Black people through loopholes.
A process of “supermarket redlining” begins when the stores begin to purposely avoid these impoverished, culturally diverse areas. Some researchers even argue that the term “food apartheid” more accurately portrays the deliberate private and public resource allocation decisions that have shaped these conditions. To make matters worse, a study found that residents of the poorest socioeconomic areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast food as those living in the wealthiest areas.
Highly populated cities such as New York, San Francisco, Camden, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Atlanta possess elite food scenes, while food deserts can often be found just a few miles away.
Today’s Food Justice Movement
According to the nonprofit organization FoodPrint, “food justice” is a holistic and structural view of the food system that sees healthy food as a human right. Food inequality is a systemic issue, meaning that while there are a lot of institutionalized problems, there are also many avenues for creating solutions within our communities.
On a national level, former First Lady Michelle Obama founded the “Let’s Move” campaign, which had the goal of eradicating food deserts by 2017 through a $400 million government investment that provided tax breaks to grocery stores that opened in food deserts. On a local level, at least 70 free food forests have been organized around the country. A “free food forest” is an intentionally cultivated community food garden. For example, a partnership between the Conservation fund, the city of Atlanta, and Trees Atlanta rezoned 7.1 acres of land that was going to become townhouses. That land became the nation’s largest “free food forest” thanks to a U.S. Forest Service grant and over 1,000 community volunteers. Moreover, many urban cities have advocated for other innovative local initiatives such as prohibiting new fast food outlets in certain areas, incentivizing supermarkets to set up shop, changing zoning to allow for commercial urban agriculture, adapting urban planning, and more.
At the organizational level, numerous food justice groups have created co-ops, neighborhood grocery stores owned by the community members that shop there, and offer volunteer opportunities to help meet pressing community needs. Food justice can and needs to be fought for on neighborhood, national, and international fronts. For ways to join the fight, see below.
Ways to Get Involved
Advocate for nutrition education and healthy lunches in schools.
Locate the nearest food desert to you on the USDA’s food desert locator map. See what organizations and policies you can support in your area.
Vote for candidates that are committed to food justice.
Support food justice organizations led by people of color and connect with activists
Encourage your local farmers, supermarkets, and cafeterias to join the Domestic Fair Trade Association and to seek Food Justice Certification through the Agricultural Justice Project.
Learn more about the history of race and the American food system through books like An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, In the Shadow of Slavery and Dispossession. Food First has a useful series on “Dismantling Racism in the Food System” and “Building The Case For Racial Equity In The Food System” to identify some next steps. Check out the film Food Inc. on Netflix.
Check out member organizations of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Have hope! Watch out for and challenge corporations and politicians that prioritize self-interest over food equity.
We hope you learned something new about food deserts! What did you learn and are you going to take any action to advocate for this issue? Let us know in the comments!
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