Food Deserts and Their Impact on Community Health

More than 10 percent of all American households, or about 13.7 million, experience food insecurity. This means that 35 million Americans, and 5 million children, live in environments that lack healthy food that allows them to lead a healthy life.

"Food deserts" are communities that do not have adequate access to healthy food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. You may be curious about why these places exist, how they got there, and what potential solutions there are. If so, keep reading--it will help you be more informed about the world and better positioned to help make it better.

What Makes a Food Desert?

Food deserts are areas where fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, legumes, dairy, or meat, are completely lacking or prohibitively expensive. In short, food deserts are areas where families face significant obstacles to accessing healthy foods.

Many factors contribute to the emergence (and persistence) of food insecurity. Lack of proximity to supermarkets or local food markets is a major cause of food deserts. This is true for both inner cities and rural towns.

While 82 percent of people living in food deserts are in urban areas, rural spaces are not exempt. Though vehicles are more of a necessity (and more prevalent) in rural areas, it does not always solve the problem. About 335,000 people in the United States live more than 20 miles away from a grocery store.

Limited income and resources are contributing factors to food deserts. Transportation difficulties among low-income populations are a major factor. This could mean a lack of a vehicle or of public transportation options to access groceries. Infrastructure that makes walking or biking difficult also limits access.

Food deserts disproportionately impact marginalized communities. They have a higher percentage of Black and Latinx populations.

A history of racial segregation has both caused and exacerbated food insecurity. A food system dictated by corporations is also a symptom of systemic racism as it pertains to health inequalities.

For these reasons, the term “food apartheid” has emerged as a more accurate description of this issue. That is because “food desert” implies a natural or haphazard cause for these disparities when that is not the case.

Negative Effects of Food Deserts

People who live in food deserts turn to convenience stores that sell processed foods with lower nutritional value. These boxed or frozen meals are also easier to prepare, which makes them all the more appealing to those working long hours to make ends meet.

(Note that, for this reason, food desserts are often underreported. Corner convenience stores that sell processed foods are often categorized as those that sell fresh produce.)

Nutrition (or lack of it) plays a key role in the development of chronic diseases. These include everything from heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer, to name a few. This results in lower mortality rates for those living in food deserts.

Health problems like obesity--common to food deserts--tend to be intergenerational. Children of obese parents are more likely to become overweight themselves. This creates a vicious cycle that only makes health disparities worse.

Malnutrition also has negative repercussions for pregnant women. It means they are more susceptible to iron, vitamin A, and other nutrient deficiencies. Lack of nutrition contributes to weaker immune systems. These women are more prone to miscarriages and birth defects.

Finally, people in food deserts with food allergies or sensitivities may find it difficult to find safe food to eat. This is not only unhealthy but can be life-threatening as well.

Solutions to Food Deserts

Since the issue of food deserts is complicated and not linked to a single cause, responses will be complex as well. There are a few proven solutions that can begin to chip away at these deficits.

Public Health Policies and Programs

One very straightforward solution to food deserts is beefing up the existing food safety nets. Expanding federal programs that provide food stamps to children and pregnant women would have a huge impact. It would ensure fewer families and individuals fall through the cracks.

Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and decreasing income tax thresholds for low-income earners could help as well. It would put more money in families' pockets to help them afford healthier food options.

The government can play a role in incentivizing grocery store development in areas where it is lacking. Tax incentives are an inducement for corporate grocery chains. They also can encourage the opening of local small businesses, like health food stores.

Also, there is a need to expand or develop new government programs that help screen for food insecurity. This would help identify other commonalities in locations where food insecurity problems persist.

Community Health Programs

There are some things local neighborhoods and municipalities can do as well. Community gardens, for instance, can be a great source of healthy food. They also are an opportunity to learn planting and farming skills. They are a way for neighbors to work together, build community, and keep resources local.

Likewise, farmers and community markets support local food production. It also means money going back to individuals and local businesses. This has the added benefit of “cutting out the middle man” and eliminating things like transportation costs.

Nonprofit programs like food banks that address waste can assist as well. Many of these organizations seek out and redistribute acceptable produce from grocery stores that they otherwise would throw out.

Help End Food Deserts

We hope this information on food deserts is helpful to you. Now that you have a better understanding of this complex issue, you can determine in what ways you might be able to contribute to finding solutions.

At Esperança, combating the social determinants of food deserts for communities around the world is just one of many programs we provide to ensure the health of all families.

Esperança is the Portuguese word for “hope.” We work domestically and abroad to provide preventative health education, community development projects and surgical intervention to communities. Our regions of focus include North, South, and Central America, as well as Mozambique. Reach out to us today to see how you can get involved.

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