For many people living in marginalized neighborhoods in the U.S., it’s a long trek to a store with a decent produce department. Instead of making a salad or steaming veggies, they wind up making do with nearby fast food or junk food.
A lot of terminology has popped up around this lack of access to fresh food. Food desert is the most common, which the USDA defines as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” On the other hand, a food swamp refers to an area full of fast food but with nary a juice or salad bar in sight.
Different organizations have different estimates, but probably at least 20 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts. Since the people who live in these food deserts and swamps are disproportionately Black or other minorities, access to healthy foods is also a racial issue.
Health consequences of food deserts
The idea of “you are what you eat” takes on a frightening aspect in a food desert or swamp. Because if our body is made up of Big Macs and dollar store snacks, we’re headed down the road to health problems big and small. Racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the CDC.
Ironically, migrant workers are especially hard hit by food disparities. While they make up about 73% of the agricultural workforce, they usually lack access to the healthful fruits of their labor.
Where did the supermarkets go?
As suburbs expanded in the latter half of the 20th century, many supermarket chains followed white flight from urban areas. Suburbs had the reputation of being clean and safe, with plenty of space for massive parking lots. In the last decades of the 1900s, stores merged, consolidating the grocery industry and resulting in fewer locations.
Supermarket chains “have a demographic location profile that prioritizes communities that are not low income and not African American,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, as reported in CNN. “The outcome has a racial bias.”
Many neighborhoods and cities have appealed to grocery chains to locate in less affluent areas. Michael Nutter, who served on the city council before being mayor of Philadelphia, spent years trying to entice retailers to open in a mostly Black area of the city. He was turned down, despite offering tax incentives.
“We went to virtually every national grocery retailer in our region,” Nutter said, as reported in CNN. “White people don’t think Black people spend money, and they weren’t willing to invest in predominately Black neighborhoods.” Eventually ShopRite agreed to open a store there in 2007.
A 2016 CNN Business study looked at the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. It concluded that about 17.7% of mostly Black neighborhoods had limited grocery access, compared to only 7.6% of predominantly white neighborhoods.
Mixed messages for grocers
Zoning and real estate deals are complicated, and matters aren’t always as simple as good people versus racists. For example, Trader Joe’s almost opened a store on a blighted vacant lot in a historically Black neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. While many local residents were thrilled about having access to reasonably priced groceries from a major chain, others worried that Trader Joe’s would accelerate a strong gentrification trend. A civil rights group wanted many guarantees from the grocer about economic development in the area and presented a list of demands. After drawn-out controversy in the press, Trader Joe’s eventually pulled out.
“We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple: if a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe’s, we understand, and we won’t open the store in question,” the grocer said in a statement.
What can be done?
Like it or not, the U.S. is a capitalist society. If a grocery chain doesn’t think it can make money in a certain neighborhood, it won’t open a store there.
So what’s the alternative? Geographer and writer Aria Dailee wrote an excellent article for Medium about what could be done to help people living in food deserts. Dailee suggests that coops, nonprofit or government-run supermarkets are a possible alternative to established grocers. For example, the Baldwin Market in Northeast Florida is run by the town of Baldwin, and all the store employees are on the municipal payroll.
“We’re not trying to make a profit,” Mayor Sean Lynch told the Washington Post. “We’re trying to cover our expenses, and keep the store running. Any money that’s made after that will go into the town in some way.”
Another option on the municipal level is to put restrictions on dollar stores opening in poor neighborhoods. Cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Birmingham and Cleveland are all trying to squash the spread of dollar stores in food deserts. These stores set up shop in poor neighborhoods, directly competing with grocers without providing much in the way of fresh food.
In her Medium article, Dailee also mentioned the brilliant idea of bus stop farmers markets. Busy people commuting by bus or train can easily buy healthy food on their way home if fruits and vegetables await them at public transportation hubs. Many farmers markets take food stamps. Tampa, Atlanta and Dayton have already opened bus stop farmers markets.
Those who are really determined to be self-sufficient can grow their own vegetables. Many low-income people lack their own yard, but might be able to get a plot at a community garden. Many cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, have purposely placed community gardens in food deserts, letting residents grow their own fresh food.
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