First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to California yesterday, and she talked about food deserts. We mentioned them in a prior post on food security, so, it seemed time to talk a bit more about those deserts and what we are trying to do about them.
A food desert is a neighborhood with little or no access to healthy food options. At home&community inc, we view the problem of food deserts as a social justice and equity issue, since they are marked by unfairness and inequitable access to fresh and healthy food. These deserts occur primarily in low-income urban communities of color and also in rural areas. Residents who lack access – who live in food deserts – suffer from health issues like obesity and diabetes at far higher rates than those who don’t.
Where does one shop for food in a food desert? Well, usually in a fast food restaurant, gas station or corner convenience/liquor store. That food is often more expensive than fresher options in grocery stores and (unfortunately) usually within walking distance of residents’ homes.
When you add some statistics and a dose of reality to the situation, it becomes even clearer that we’ve got extreme inequality at hand. Policylink reports that in Mississippi, more than 70% of families that could receive SNAP/EBT benefits (formerly food stamps) live more than 30 miles from the nearest major grocery store. It also has the highest obesity rate in the U.S. There are at least eight other states in the study with similarly shocking numbers, and overall in the U.S. more than 23 million people live farther than a mile from a supermarket. As a result, availability of public transportation is a key factor in getting people to fresh produce.
But, if you build it will they come? Apparently, yes. Studies by The Food Trust have proven that when there is better access to better food, people eat healthier. In some places simply putting more fresh produce on shelves has shown greater consumption of that produce. Plus, the benefits of more fresh options expand beyond the residents — the whole area gets “healthy” too. In many cases, a grocery store brings economic growth through other retail outlets, services and jobs to the neighborhood. Farmers markets help local produce growers and folks along the supply chain, while keeping money in the local economy.
As with all the topics we post, we want to let you know what we’re doing to help. And, as you might guess from reading our earlier posts (you have read them right?) we are advocating for increased access to fresh options via local growing. That means connecting folks to farmers markets that accept SNAP/EBT benefits; advocating for more farmers markets to accept SNAP/EBT; helping people become members of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms; helping people grow their own food at their homes or in a community garden. We are also interested in bringing options to people through innovative programs like New York’s Green Carts and local food truck deliveries of produce.
We’re working on more oasis, less mirage.