Beyond the Food Desert: Why We Can't Get Healthy Foods in Poor Communities

Two new studies challenge the existence of "food deserts"—but the link between poverty and obesity runs deeper.

It’s a long-accepted principle in the sustainable food world that folks living in food deserts—areas bereft of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other nutritious food sources—are more likely to be obese. Because food desert residents lack access to healthy food purveyors, they’re forced to buy meals from neighborhood businesses—mainly fast-food joints and corner stores. All that fried fare and processed junk makes diets hard to balance.

But two new studies are challenging this law of food justice. California’s Public Policy Institute published a study in March revealing that not only do poor neighborhoods contain more fast-food restaurants and corner stores than affluent ones, these communities hold nearly twice as many supermarkets per square mile as wealthier locales. And another study from the RAND Corporation found no correlation between what children ate, their weights, and what sorts of food vendors were located near their homes. Could it be that everything we’ve ever assumed about food justice is wrong?

In a word, no. Regardless of the food desert puzzle, the link between poverty and obesity is a strong one. One study shows that more than one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year were obese, while only 25 percent who earn more than $50,000 a year were significantly overweight. And findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the most comprehensive look at Americans’ nutritional status to date, revealed that low-income children were much more likely to be overweight than kids of higher socioeconomic statuses.

Understanding the culprits behind America’s obesity epidemic perplexes even the most distinguished of nutritionists, but there’s a very clear connection between living in poverty and being overweight. “Food deserts” as we know them may or may not play a role in that problem, but a lack of food access certainly does.

It starts with affordability. Healthy foods—namely fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—cost significantly more than their processed, unhealthy counterparts. Four dollars can buy a package of organic romaine lettuce at the grocery store, or two packs of hot dogs. A box of generic-brand macaroni and cheese costs less than a dollar—you’d be hard-pressed to get more than two fresh apples for the same buck. Folks living on fixed incomes buy processed, packaged foods because it’s what they can afford. Plopping a supermarket in a food desert helps, but if residents can only afford the store’s most unhealthy fare, eating habits aren’t going to improve.

The National School Lunch Program also helps strengthen the link between poverty and obesity. Nearly 20 million low-income kids receive free or reduced-cost lunches every day through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program. While the state of school lunches has improved in recent years due to the Child Nutrition Act, pizza is still considered a vegetable and there’s no limit on how often schools can serve kids French fries. The program is also chronically underfunded—it’s hard to boost meals’ nutritional quality without making a significant monetary commitment. Plus, it fails to include an educational component: Give a kid a healthy meal and he’ll eat well for a day. Teach him about why nutrition is so important, and you’ll lay the foundation for a lifetime of good eating.

Evidence also shows that low-income neighborhoods—especially those in urban areas and near schools—have significantly more fast-food restaurants than affluent communities. Fast food’s presence alone isn’t fostering unhealthy eating and obesity—leave that to the targeted marketing dollars behind McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bells, and other eateries. The fast-food industry spends a flabbergasting $4.2 billion a year on advertising. The fast food industry spends more on advertising in four days than the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading organization fighting childhood obesity, spends on health education in an entire year.

It’s not just a lack of access to healthy foods that fosters the poverty/obesity connection, either—it’s also a lack of access to exercise. Unlike their more affluent counterparts, low-income neighborhoods aren’t flush with playgrounds, tennis courts, parks, and gyms. Poor communities also tend to be more dangerous than those of higher socioeconomic status, so the public exercise options that are available may go unused for fear of violence.

And regardless of the latest research, food deserts could still be part of the problem. Some studies say bringing supermarkets and farmers’ markets to low-income neighborhoods greatly improves healthy eating. Other research shows that even when healthy foods like fresh produce are available in low-income neighborhoods, they’re of a poorer quality than those found in affluent communities. More investigation is necessary before we make firm conclusion about the connection between living in a food desert and obesity. It would be foolish to discount this potential factor based on two new studies.

Here’s what we do know, now: Obesity and its causes are varied and complex, but many of them involve a lack of access—whether to healthy foods, exercise, time, or funds. There’s no silver bullet solution to solving the obesity/poverty link—it’s going to take a comprehensive approach to bulldoze the barriers to healthy eating.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user lyzadanger

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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