Two people near a food display inside a New York bodega.
Image Source: Robinson Greig / Unsplash

The Answer to America’s Food Desert Problem

Food deserts— defined as “an impoverished area where residents lack access to healthy foods” (Britannica)— are another factor contributing to the health disparities between white people and people of color. Due to economic and social factors, supermarkets and farmer’s markets can be much harder to access in underserved areas, leading civilians to rely on unhealthy food options as their primary source of nutrition. Food deserts generally exist in urban areas— predominantly inhabited by nonwhite people— which is why Black people are disproportionately affected by diet-related health conditions (American Progress).

Redlining—a leading factor in the creation of food deserts—is defined as an “illegal, discriminatory practice in which a mortgage lender denies loans or an insurance provider restricts services to certain areas of a community, often because of the racial characteristics of the applicant’s neighbourhood” (Britannica). Not only did redlining make the process of buying and renting homes more difficult, but it also prevented businesses like grocery stores and restaurants from opening, leaving these redlined neighborhoods with little-to-no healthy food options.

TAKE ACTION

Volunteer at local soup kitchens and initiatives that combat food insecurity. Click this link to access a list of initiatives.

Advocate for improved SNAP and WIC benefits that increase monthly spending for individuals to purchase fruits and vegetables. 

Find local food banks using this link and donate to nearby food banks or soup kitchens.

While the practice of redlining may have been made illegal by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, its effects are still present today. Redlined neighborhoods— mainly occupied by people of color— are not given the same resources as more affluent communities because they generally house lower-income families. Healthier, more costly grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are less likely to open stores in low-income neighborhoods, forcing redlined communities to shop at less expensive, unhealthy food retailers. 

The introduction of grocery stores like these also indicates that the property values will increase quickly, contributing to gentrification and perpetuating a cyclical process of inequity.

Many urban and rural communities have more convenience stores than supermarkets. Generally speaking, convenience stores tend to sell high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and do not offer a selection of alternative options like vegetables, fruits, and grains. The distance between food deserts and grocery stores serves as a barrier to members of urban and rural communities who lack transportation options; therefore, they may rely on local convenience stores or fast-food restaurants for most of their household food purchases. 

While diet-related conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure) are a concern for all racial and ethnic groups, statistics prove that they especially affect minority communities. “The population attributable risk for hypertension and 30-year mortality among white men was 23.8% compared with 45.2% among Black men and 18.3% for white women compared with 39.5% for Black women” (The American Journal of the Medical Sciences). Hypertension, which increases an individual’s risk of heart disease and stroke, can be largely impacted by one’s diet. Because consuming large amounts of sodium and fats can contribute to the development of hypertension, it is especially concerning that many food deserts— predominantly occupied by people of color—are more likely to sell unhealthy and salty food options. According to a study evaluating the relationship between food deserts and cardiovascular (CV) risk factors, hypertension was more prevalent among participants living in food deserts than those not living in them (American College of Cardiology). 

Because many families living in food deserts lack healthy food options, they often have no choice but to feed their families insubstantial, unwholesome food. As a result, the children may eventually develop unhealthy eating habits that become harder to abandon with age, raising the rates of dietary issues within the Black community. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves as the largest food assistance program in the United States. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) specifically aims to help women and children’s nutritional needs. Intended to provide low-income families with better food access, SNAP is the primary source of nutrition and nourishment for millions of Americans. While SNAP does increase food-insecure families’ access to food, it generally does not provide enough support for people to maintain a healthy diet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “researchers have estimated that SNAP benefits fall about $11 short per person of the weekly cost of a nutritious meal plan” (CBPP). By increasing SNAP benefits, food desert residents, who are generally a part of the low-income population, will be able to purchase much healthier and more nutritious food. 

It’s important to note that, as digital grocery shopping becomes more commonplace in the pandemic, many do not accept SNAP. 

Food— one of the human body’s fundamental physiological needs— has been weaponized against people of color (especially Black and Latino individuals). The mere existence of food deserts serves as another example of how systemic racism affects all aspects of life for minorities. Not only does systemic racism’s connection to food deserts affect adults, who are more susceptible to diet-related health conditions, but it also impacts youth. Children who develop poor eating habits may struggle to participate in physical activities and ultimately suffer from mental and emotional stress. Children who struggle with serious health conditions tend to display signs of lower self-esteem. In some cases, the intense emotional strain may lead a child to become anxious or depressed. 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought more attention to health disparities between racial groups— especially highlighting the effects that underlying health conditions have on an individual’s bodily reaction to the virus. As the world continues to fight the pandemic, people must have access to the fuel they need to stay healthy. More than ever, the country needs to rally together to ensure that communities deemed food deserts have access to nutritious food.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Food deserts are a result of systemic racism and redlining. 
  • Food deserts are directly linked to higher rates of diet-related health conditions, affecting the Black community, and contributing to higher mortality rates. 
  • The rapid spread of the coronavirus makes it even more necessary for people to have trusted and reliable access to diverse food options.

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