The U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined food deserts as parts of the country where it’s hard to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods. To be considered a food desert, at least 500 people or 33 percent of an area’s population must live further than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. That distance increases to 10 miles when defining a rural food desert. Food deserts are often located in impoverished and in areas with higher concentrations of minorities; though this is not always true.
That’s the textbook definition — but to fully understand where food deserts come from, it’s imperative to examine some of America’s not-so-shining moments. Among them: redlining, a practice used throughout the 20th century (that still occurs today) to limit or deny financial services to residents of minority and poor white neighborhoods; and “white flight,” the term used to describe the departure of whites from urban areas with increasing numbers of minorities.
“One feature of this disinvestment was pulling out places of food access,” explains Adam Brock, Adviser of Strategic Planning at The Growhaus, a nonprofit indoor farm in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. “Investors didn’t see as much economic opportunity in those neighborhoods as in wealthy neighborhoods, which led to situations where the food that was available was cheap and processed, often from fast food restaurants and corner stores.”
Fast forward to 2010. The term “food desert” has caught on in the United States, and first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is in full swing. Obama has made access to fresh food a cornerstone of her high-profile campaign against childhood obesity. She spearheaded the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which offers grants, loans and tax incentives to grocers willing to open stores in underserved and impoverished areas.
The previous year, researchers from the Department of Agriculture presented a report to Congress that showed some poor neighborhoods have more grocery stores than wealthier ones. The researchers conducted a follow-up study in 2012 with the same results. Reports from various other agencies and research groups have also shown no correlation between availability of fresh food and individuals choosing a healthier diet.
Food Deserts Are Complicated
What this plethora of contradictory information tells us is that the problem is much more complex than it may have initially seemed.
“It’s not just about plopping down bricks and sticks stores,” says Mari Gallagher of Mari Gallagher Research, a Chicago-based consulting firm known for its groundbreaking research on food deserts. “There is much more we need to do to help communities build a robust food system.”
Brock agrees. “Access to healthy food is about a lot more than proximity. It includes cultural and economic factors,” he explains. “You can have fresh vegetables down the street, but it if you don’t have time to cook them or prepare them, you are still going to go for the items that are cheap and processed.”
At The Growhaus, Brock embraces a more comprehensive approach to providing healthy food to Elyria-Swansea’s residents. Not only does the nonprofit grow food and sell it to their neighbors at a deep discount, but they also work with Denver Food Rescue to collect surplus food from grocery stores and restaurants, and are currently partnering with the city to institute a healthy corner store program. While volunteers sort and divide boxes of rescued food, visitors can take a cooking class where they can get familiar with fruits and vegetables they may have never even seen, never mind tasted or prepared. The Growhaus also works with schools and groups to teach people how to grow their own food, even in cramped apartments or tiny yards.
Brock says that living in a food desert can also lead to other challenges like high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart conditions, which are compounded by the fact that many underserved neighborhoods lack recreational opportunities and have poor air quality.
It’s About More Than Economics
“Part of the definition of a food desert is not having access to healthy food, but there’s a lot to how that is defined,” says Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian at HelloFresh. “It could be older people who don’t drive or people who have to take the bus. When you are talking about distance and transportation, a mile is far to carry groceries,” she emphasizes.
For people who have the money but lack sufficient transportation, meal delivery services like HelloFreshcan be a viable option to a healthier diet (albeit a less environmentally-friendly one). In addition to a lack of fresh food options, food deserts often have a higher concentration of fast food restaurants, which impacts obesity rates in these areas.
“The big error people make is saying, ‘I just want to get calories in,'” Lewis says. “They think, ‘If I get the dollar menu, I’m being a good parent, I’m keeping my kids full.’ But there’s a paradox: low-income people are also the ones at highest risk of obesity, which often causes health problems down the line.”
In addition to putting together nutrient-dense meals for its members, HelloFresh aims to get people cooking again. Each box comes with a recipe card that explains step by step how to prepare a healthy meal. In-house dieticians develop recipes, and even Naked Chef and food guru Jamie Oliver has signed on to curate one recipe a week.
“Back in the day, before the explosion of fast food and restaurants, people were stretching their dollars,” says Lewis. “They bought rice, beans, milk and other staples. Now we spend income on fast food. We’ve allowed others to prepare our food for us. It’s a gap that must be addressed when we talk about food deserts. You have to provide education about why you want to choose the vegetable over the dollar menu.”
As evidenced by the rising popularity of meal delivery services like HelloFresh, not everyone who lives in a food desert (as defined by the USDA’s definition) fits the stereotypical image of someone who lacks access to healthy food.
“As you start improving the problem, you realize there are other issues ingrained in it,” Lewis notes.
Obviously, education is an important part of the food desert puzzle — but policy also matters. Gallagher points out several problematic issues with SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) system, formerly known as food stamps.
“One thing we see is that gas stations are growing at a rapid rate regarding participation in SNAP program, which is supposed to be the first line of defense against malnutrition. One problem with SNAP is that standards are too low, and many retailers don’t even follow those low standards. Many are not in compliance,” she explains. “When you look at who was in SNAP in 2006, and who is in SNAP in 2016, you see some of the biggest spikes are gas stations and second-day bakeries [that sell snack cakes]. That’s a bit of a policy concern. SNAP money needs to be funneled through food providers that offer nutritious foods.”
Perhaps most importantly, Gallagher strongly recommends growing local food economies.
“Instead of trucking in food to a grocery store — whether rural or urban — let’s implement a food system where more food can be produced locally,” she advocates. “Food gives us the nutrients we need, but we should also have our food system be more of a job generator. We all eat to live, but if we don’t eat well, over time, we might not live that well.”