Marked by geographical and socioeconomic disadvantage, a food desert is an area with limited access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food, especially fruits and vegetables. A food desert is usually identified based on how far the people in a neighborhood live from a grocery store, the income of families in that area, and their access to transportation.
Food deserts exist in both urban and rural landscapes and are concentrated in low-income and historically marginalized communities throughout the United States. The USDA estimates about 53.6 million people, or 17.4% of the population, live in areas considered low income and low access, which means the closest supermarket can be more than a half mile away in urban areas and 45 miles away in rural ones. In Alabama, close to 2 million residents live in these areas, which are most populated by communities of color and low-income white people. Because affordability and proximity are the most prevalent concerns for residents of these communities, they often rely on fast food and corner stores as a substitute for a supermarket.
These less-than-ideal options lead to less-than-ideal choices and as is often the case with poverty-ridden communities, residents are blamed for their circumstances with no acknowledgment of the systemic barriers for optimistic and health-conscious outcomes for the poor—even when they make the best choices available. According to Dasha Kennedy, whose social media handle The Broke Black Girl focuses on culturally relevant financial education, it should not be a surprise that “not having fair access to healthy foods as a result of years of segregation and redlining leads to health problems.”
In food deserts, healthy foods are often expensive or unattainable, and the lack of access to these foods can lead to health disparities and high rates of chronic disease and obesity, which is why areas that are food deserts and food insecure are also poor and low-income communities that are healthcare insecure.
Feeding America’s cycle of hunger and health describes a process by which a food-insecure household is forced to cope, which usually means consuming cheap foods that are high in calories, but low in nutritional value, which leads to poor nutrition, and chronic diet-related diseases. These chronic illnesses exacerbate existing disabilities which results in an inability to work, increased healthcare costs, and further restriction of an already limited food budget, putting more pressure on low-income households in the current inflationary environment.
Longer-term solutions that may help reverse the harmful effects of food deserts must include structural changes and policy changes to reverse the damage already done. But some short-term alternatives include community-driven programs like food pantries, community gardens and farmer’s markets alongside federal programs like SNAP and WIC, which can help ensure that healthy foods are made available in places where they would otherwise be scarce.
There is no quick fix to equitable food access, but if these short-term alternatives and long-term structural changes are implemented, what’s a food desert now can become a food oasis in the future.
I’m Robin Boylorn, until next time, keep it crunk.
Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young