Why There’s No Easy Solution to America’s Food Deserts

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...

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.”

Lack of transportation is also a symptom, and one that may require further research. According to the blog of Parke Wilde, a professor of U.S. food policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Americans, regardless of income, shop at supermarkets with cars, even if they don’t own one. The USDA’s 2009 Report to Congress on food deserts points out that in low-income areas with high access to supermarkets, about 65 percent of grocery trips are by automobile, but in low-income areas with poor access to supermarkets, about 93 percent of grocery trips are by car.

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.

See how you can invest in a sustainable, nutritional solution for Oakland's food desert community. Click here to say you'll Do it.

This is part one of a three-part series exploring food deserts in America.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user bclinesmith

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet