By Ariana Nieves,
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)
What are Food Deserts?
Food deserts are areas where citizens have little to no suitable access to reasonably priced and nutritious food. These areas are commonly found in communities where low-income and high poverty are prevalent.
According to the USDA’s report issued in 2017, about 39.4 million people live in low-income and low-access areas. Additionally, about 19 million U.S citizens are currently living in food deserts.
Generally, food deserts are found within urban and rural African American and Hispanic communities and are a systemic issue dating back to the 1960s.
Why Food Deserts are a Serious Problem
Many of these individuals do not have grocery stores or supermarkets within their communities and struggle to find healthy food options. Residents rely on public transportation to get to the nearest grocery store (which can be miles away) because they do not have access to automobiles. This could turn a trip into an hour or hour and a half journey to get to the supermarket itself.
Additionally, most residents do not have the income to support a healthy lifestyle as many nutritious options are not affordable. Fast-food chains have overrun these neighborhoods and make it difficult to sustain or strive for a healthier existence. When choosing how to feed a family on a low-income budget and you see that a package of strawberries is four dollars at Whole Foods and at Wendy’s you could get a cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, fries, and a drink for four dollars, the choice is simple.
These families are driven into buying into fast-food chains to sustain themselves because it is the only thing accessible to them. This lack of variety and food security is causing health issues within the African American and Hispanic communities. The increased intake of highly processed and sugary foods is leading to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer within these populations.
Covid-19’s Impact on Food Deserts
The pandemic has only increased the problems within food deserts. Social distancing policies enacted due to Covid-19 in 2020 made public transportation inaccessible for residents; this made it more difficult for people to get to the grocery store. Additionally, Covid-19 had a huge impact on small businesses and led to many closures of small convenience stores located in these communities.
Food insecurity also left the members of these neighborhoods more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A higher Covid-19 mortality rate occurred in these populations due to the existing health issues prevalent before the pandemic caused by a lack of healthy options.
An increase in unemployment is also a driving factor for food insecurity today. The pandemic has impacted the workforce and created more strain in having enough income to sustain a healthy lifestyle for those in food deserts.
Suggested Solutions to Help Combat Food Insecurity
Some ways to encourage food diversity and more accessible options in food desert locations include incentivizing grocery stores in underserved areas. Grocery stores are not built in these communities for many reasons, but one includes increased risk. Businesses have a harder time securing loans to aid in the production process. As well as, having to deal with higher insurance rates because the location is in such a high poverty-ridden area. If businesses were incentivized to branch out into these locations, it could encourage more food options for the residents.
Another proposed solution is funding city-wide programs to encourage better eating. Through city funding, these issues could gain more attention on a broader scale. This could help increase needed access. Further, it can go to a state level. For example, Pennsylvania has enacted the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative and has provided $147 million in funding to combat food insecurity within their communities.
Overall, food deserts and food insecurity are prevalent problems in the U.S that are affecting millions of citizens daily. Many communities are working to combat this issue and looking for funding on a federal and state level to broaden the scale. More funding is needed to aid these communities and make healthy living achievable for people of any income status. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, check out these video sources that go into depth on food deserts in different cities around the country:
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