This three-part series exploring food deserts is brought to you by GOOD with support from Naked Juice.
The notion of a desert in the midst of America’s cities and towns may seem impossible—a mirage. But for 23.5 million Americans, it’s a daily reality. Residents in urban and rural areas alike can find themselves in food deserts in which there is a dearth of fresh, healthful groceries within a convenient proximity of their home. Although some researchers have challenged the existence of food deserts, politicians, policy-makers, and nonprofits are still attempting to understand and address the problem. The causes of such deserts are complex and wrapped up in larger socio-economic challenges endemic to low income, urban and rural areas.
According to the USDA’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a food desert is a low-income area where most residents have low access to a supermarket or a grocery store. In this context, low access is defined as being beyond 1 mile in an urban area, and beyond 10 miles in a rural area, from the nearest supermarket. Given the lack of nearby supermarkets or grocery stores, food deserts tend to be serviced by small corner stores or convenience stores. These small retailers are at a disadvantage to larger chains in getting fresh food on their shelves.
“If I’m a produce wholesaler, it costs me the same amount of money to drop off one case of onions as it does to drop off 100 cases, but I get more money if I drop off to the big stores, so it would be in my interest to make bigger drop-offs,” explains Mike Curtin, CEO and founder of nonprofit DC Central Kitchen in Washington, D.C. “So if the wholesalers don’t want to make deals with the smaller corner stores or don’t deliver as often to them, these corner stores don’t have much quality fresh food to sell.” Add to this the problem of not having enough shelf space and lack of storage at convenience stores, and the lack of fruit and vegetables becomes a difficult cycle to break for business owners.
On a larger scale, the existence of food deserts is a by-product of the mandate for publicly-held, big-box supermarkets to maximize profit. “The markets that are companies are burdened with tremendous pressure to perform well and sustain profit margins at the highest possible levels,” says Brahm Ahmadi, CEO of The People’s Community Market in Oakland, CA. “I’ve spoken to a lot of executives who say, ‘I would really like to open stores in underserved neighborhoods, I think it’s a failure of our social contract and a tragedy, but I can’t because of all these pressures.’”
Ahmadi also points out that the existence of food deserts can be traced back to the post-World War II era. The rise of the middle class and the suburbs shifted population density, which led to the rise of the supermarket. “The new middle class was willing to buy a lot more at big supermarkets in suburbs where land was cheap and there was massive consolidation of the industry away from small grocery stores,” he explains. The decline of the workforce and industrial jobs contributed to the economic downturn in many urban areas, enabling the steady rise of food deserts.
“Ultimately it’s a malfunctioning of politics,” says Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It wasn’t a priority to make these urban areas safe, it wasn’t a public priority to give tax breaks to these businesses, or to invest in public transportation. It’s a failure of the business sector, but also a failure of our governing sector.”
Currently, the term food desert may describe a problem of perception or a symptom rather than the underlying issues. For example, one explanation for food deserts cited by researchers is that people in low-income areas lack education and therefore make bad food choices. This is not true, says Berg. “People that are educated make bad choices, too. There are complex cultural, physiological, psychological, geographical reasons why people eat or don’t eat what they do,” he says. “I don’t buy the idea that 'It’s poor people and it’s their fault.' There are rich millionaires, and governors of state who consistently make bad diet choices.”
In effect, the people most affected by a food desert may be those who live in low-income areas with poor access to supermarkets without cars, which account for some 2.5 million people in the U.S. These are the people that seem to need the most help. “There are some low-income people who will go to extraordinary lengths to shop and get healthy food—they’ll take cabs, two or three buses, car services—but for most people that’s not the norm. Most low-income people are working,” explains Berg.
As more communities begin to tackle the food desert problem, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But in cities across America, changemakers are working to understand the complex, systemic root causes for this growing problem, which are the first steps to uncovering how much work still needs to be done.
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This is part one of a three-part series exploring food deserts in America.