It is often claimed that it is expensive to be poor. That poverty creates a web of interconnected obstacles that those born into better situations simply do not have to deal with.
One of the obstacles is access to affordable healthy food. It is estimated that nearly 19 million people live in a food desert spanning more than 6,500 communities across the nation.
But why do food deserts even exist? What is the impact of food deserts and what can we do to solve the problem?
What are Food Deserts?
The USDA defines food deserts as an area where at least ⅓ of the population lives greater than one mile away from a supermarket for urban areas or greater than ten miles for rural areas.
This lack of access translates to serious financial and health consequences. People living in neighborhoods with the least amount of access to healthy food are 55% less likely to have a good-quality diet compared to those that do. People who live in communities with greater access to healthy foods see a 45% reduction in the incidence of diabetes over five years.
All of this culminates in $71 billion in health care costs due to chronic diseases that could have been prevented with healthier eating according to Tulane University’s School of Social Work.
By this definition, I grew up in a food desert in the northern sector of Tulsa, OK where 19 percent of the entire city does not have access to grocery stores and fresh foods. In 2018, there was a protest to boycott Dollar General. Residents contended that the increasing number of small-box discount stores discouraged full-scale supermarkets to enter the area.
Since 2011, companies, like Dollar General and Dollar Tree, have expanded 50 percent, primarily in low-income areas. These stores very rarely have fresh produce and non-processed food options.
Unfortunately, food deserts are not only a problem in the urban areas of America’s cities. Over 80% of counties with the highest percentage of kids at risk for food insecurity are rural.
Why do Food Deserts Exist?
Some of the factors that allow food deserts to exist are connected to immense social and systemic issues. Other factors suggest that food deserts are a symptom of broader supply and demand economics.
In either case, the problem began in the 1960s as the economy began to change and suburban areas started to grow. This was the era of white flight, the mass migration of white families from urban areas to the suburbs. In most instances, the supermarkets followed middle-class white families, leaving a gap in resources for those populations they left behind.
On the business side of things, there is also a “tax” of sorts when attempting to open or run a business in an underserved, predominantly Black and brown community.
“There’s increased cost for opening up a business in areas without a lot of existing investments in those communities,” said Jarrett Thibodeaux, data analyst at the Public Library of Science in an interview with CNBC. Thibodeaux goes further to say that It is harder to secure loans and there are higher insurance rates.
Additionally, the entire grocery store industry tends to be capital-intensive with very small profit margins. This becomes exceptionally difficult in food deserts. “If a supermarket normally makes one percent of sales as the bottom line profit…the food desert stores lose four percent,” said Jeff Brown, President, and CEO of Brown’s Superstores in 2020.
As for local policymakers, most economic development initiatives tend to focus on areas with the highest growth potential instead of areas with the highest need. However, there is another layer to be addressed. Our government plays a role in the problem as well. Proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would deal a significant blow to supermarkets currently located in food deserts but the program has remained one of the government’s strongest weapons against food deserts and food insecurity.
What Are the Solutions?
One solution proposed by Yale University is to allow SNAP recipients to order groceries online. Their analysis found that “In eight states would increase their access to healthy, nutritious food if they purchase groceries online and had the food delivered as part of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” The analysis also showed that online delivery systems already cover about 90% of food deserts.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it takes more than simply adding a grocery store to an area. Individual shopping and eating habits would still play a major factor. Adding access to fresh food options does not guarantee that an individual will choose that option.
Steven Cummins, professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, conducted a study in 2014; in an interview with NewsHour he stated: “When given the opportunity, very few people try and switch to using newer or better provisions within their local community.” His study focused on the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative which created 88 new stores in underserved communities in the state. But in 2019, Stanford University found only 10 percent of the natural gap between the rich and poor is due to uneven supply and demand but 90 percent is a result of customer preference.
Solving the problem of food deserts in America well requires a nuanced solution that combines education, access, and innovation to provide greater access and health outcomes for our nation’s most vulnerable communities.