Food Deserts, Food Access, and Poverty

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By Will Sutton

photo credit: "View of downtown Pittsburgh from art gallery" by daveynin is licensed under CC BY 2.0"

I first heard of food deserts in my first year of college, when somebody in an environmental justice space dropped the term during a discussion. Other members nodded along sagely, and the discussion continued without explanation. But in my head, I was thinking, ‘What the heck is a food desert?’.

I’ve found that I’m not alone in my ignorance on the topic. The term is almost three decades old, and has become popular in academic study of environmental justice, urban planning, economics, and public health and nutrition. The U.S. census even designates specific tracts as food deserts. But although most people have probably heard of the term, it’s often used as a buzz word in broader conversations about justice. Rarely do we pause to take an honest look at the issue itself.

So here’s a crash course on food deserts, and a discussion about the future of food access issues.

What are food deserts?

Broadly speaking, food deserts are urban areas with poor access to healthful foods. The USDA uses a “low-income, low-access” definition of food deserts, classifying them as any area where the poverty rate is above 20%, and 33% or more of the population lives over one mile (for urban areas) or ten miles (for rural areas) from a supermarket.

Why are they important?

Food deserts are correlated with nutritional disparities in America, which intersect with issues of race and class. A review of food desert research found that African American neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods are more likely to have low access to healthful food. Resultant poor nutrition aggravates existing racial and class disparities. For example, a low-income person living in a food desert may have additional medical costs due to malnourishment (obesity, vitamin deficiency, etc), plunging them further into poverty. Similarly, food deserts in Black neighborhoods intersect with historical de jure and de facto segregation, making these neighborhoods less nourished than white neighborhoods.

Food deserts, then, are an issue of nutritional justice. Many nonprofits laudably fight hunger through direct distribution of food, but we must also interrogate structural reasons for nutritional disparities if we want an sustainable end to hunger and malnutrition. And it seems food deserts are one of these reasons.

Can we fix food deserts?

Yes. At the urging of social justice advocates and urban policymakers, some cities have subsidized supermarkets moving into food deserts. Such subsidies have ended the official existence of food deserts; however, they have largely not ended nutritional disparities between these and other areas. Various studies, detailed in this excellent article by Jessica Fu, have found introducing supermarkets that provide healthful food does not cause a significant increase in consumption of such foods. Simply put, proximity does not equate to access or consumption.

What does that mean for the future of food access?

Fixing food deserts has long captivated the minds of policymakers as a simple, relatively low-cost way to remedy nutritional disparities. However, as study after study proves supermarkets do relatively little to expand consumption of healthy foods, we must face the conclusion that food deserts are only a small piece of the causal story. Simply plunking a supermarket into a food desert does not fix the problems of poor nutrition in that area. As Fu writes, “there are no easy villains in a systemic issue like food access.”

Of course, that does not mean we should give up. Academics and policymakers have proposed new ways to fight food disparities, like expanding SNAP benefits and prioritizing nutritional education in the classroom. It will take all this, and more, to combat disparities in nutrition in the United States.

A quick note

It is my opinion-- and remember, I’m most certainly not an expert-- that discussions of nutritional policy must remain focused on the cyclical relationship between malnutrition and poverty. As discussed before, poverty and malnutrition are mutually fortifying. This dynamic underlies the nutritional disparities we observe in the U.S., and yet it is easy to lose sight of that. The aforementioned efforts to subsidize supermarkets, for example, fell short in part because they overlooked the simple fact that having a supermarket in an area doesn’t mean nearby consumers can suddenly afford the food, nor does it mean low-income people suddenly have the time and resources to prepare healthful meals for themselves and their families. Meaningful and sustainable solutions to nutritional disparities, in my view, can only arise if they target the mutualistic relationship between poverty and malnutrition.

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