By Olivia Baccellieri
The term ‘desert’ has a nearly universal connotation. It is dry, bereft of most life, and desolate. Tumbleweeds roll over cracked ground and suffocatingly hot air envelopes the environment. However, another interpretation of this particular climate has arisen in recent years in the United States. The concept of ‘food deserts’ has increased in scholarly analysis and in our public consciousness. These ‘deserts’ are not in the Southwestern states of this country; rather, they can surface all throughout the nation. How have these deserts cropped up throughout the United States, and what can be done to eradicate this sociopolitical issue?
Food deserts are largely defined as neighborhoods with a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20%, and at least one-third of residents living more than one mile away, or 10 miles away in the case of rural areas, from a supermarket or large grocery store (Block & Subramanian, 2015). It has been estimated that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, which constitutes approximately 7% of the country’s population (Block & Subramanian, 2015).
Oftentimes, these populations are surrounded by fast-food restaurants, which predominantly offer food and drink options with incredibly high sugar, sodium, or fat levels. Specifically, researchers have identified a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants in neighborhoods with large African-American populations. This is a particularly troubling finding, as this puts one racial group at an increased disadvantage in terms of food security. Food deserts are putting already underprivileged populations at greater risk for suffering from more deleterious circumstances.
Populations that live in food deserts experience a much higher risk of food insecurity than other groups that are conveniently situated near grocery stores. For instance, a family in a food desert will most likely consume lower-quality food, as they will not have as much income to spend on healthier foods as other families living outside of food deserts. As a result, this puts family members at risk for potentially developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or for becoming obese. Families who are living below the poverty line, and often in food deserts, may ultimately be enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] - otherwise referred to as “food stamps”. SNAP has been largely criticized for failing to provide its recipients with healthy food options, with many families subsisting on higher amounts of red meat, potatoes, and fruit juice than those not enrolled in the assistance program.
Food deserts have largely become a state and federal-level government issue, as SNAP has failed to provide adequate nutrition for its recipients. However, several states are choosing to be proactive in the fight against food disparities. Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and New York have implemented significant programs in order to increase the amount of healthy options for low-income communities. Specifically, Pennsylvania has allocated $30 million in public funds for this initiative, and has received nearly $120 million in private funds from various associations. A considerable amount of this funding has been dedicated to building grocery stores in food deserts and to increase the access to healthy foods for residents.
Should the federal government wish to increase nutritional values within low-income communities, SNAP must be overhauled. Analysts have suggested that SNAP should promote the purchases of healthier food by increasing the number of food stamps a family receives with each purchase of nutritional items. Furthermore, the federal government could decentivize the purchase of sugar-filled snacks and drinks by disqualifying them from SNAP coverage. Food desserts put families living behind the poverty line at risk for developing severe health ailments, and thus, ultimately affecting their biology. If our state and federal governments prioritize the health and wellbeing of its citizens, more funding should be earmarked to decreasing food disparities throughout this country.
Block, J. P., & Subramanian, S. V. (2015). Moving Beyond “Food Deserts”: Reorienting United States Policies to Reduce Disparities in Diet Quality. PLOS Medicine, 12(12).