Food is a basic human need. There’s no real discussion possible on this statement: without food, people are unable to survive. Access to food differs greatly among countries due to various reasons. In developed regions, such as those in Western Europe or North America, food access is generally good enough to make sure people have enough, as well as a high diversity of, food and drinks. Nevertheless, if a country is performing generally well on food access, it doesn’t automatically mean that everyone is able to access the same amount and diversity of food. If a certain population group or area within a country lower food access, either generally or certain kinds of food, this may indicate a ‘food desert’. In this article, we take a brief look at food deserts, specifically focusing on fast food in US cities, where food deserts cause problems related to fast food.

A food desert is an area where certain foods are on low availability for a number of possible reasons, such as low provision, long distances to sources, or high prices. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food”. A classic example may be the low availability of specific food sources in poor African countries, where people have to travel long distances to obtain small portions of food for a high number of people. But food deserts are not necessarily related to general amounts of food: specific problems, such as a lack of fresh fruits or vegetables, can also be regarded as food deserts.

US cities and food deserts
In the United States, cities are generally very spread out compared to cities with similar population numbers in other countries. While this may have various reasons, it also means that travel distances are long. Therefore, people rely on modalities other than walking or cycling to bridge those distances, in order to provide themselves with their basic needs. This is where, in the case of many US cities, problems occur. Public transportation is, in most cases, underdeveloped. Getting around without a car is therefore very difficult. This leads to people having to rely on their own modes transportation. At the same time, many people are unable to afford an automobile, which in turn leads to a very limited personal mobility. This means that they can only bridge a limited distance, therefore being unable to reach basic facilities. This may include food sources such as supermarkets, markets where more fresh products are sold, or specific other food sources.

While the above problem is a major issue in itself, the problem is further increased due to the spread of food sources across US cities. Supermarkets, such as Walmart or Target, are generally placed in giant complexes with huge parking lots. Because ground prices in dense urban areas are high, supermarkets logically move to cheaper areas of the city, further away from dense neighborhoods with small properties for people with lower incomes. The movement away from low income groups and towards higher income groups is further encouraged by profitability reasons. Fast food restaurants, on the other hand, don’t need big buildings and parking lots. They usually include a small number of parking spaces and a drive-in service. The much smaller land areas make it possible to establish fast food restaurants in more dense areas compared to supermarkets. Fast food restaurants also benefit from their ability to ask relatively low prices for their products, meaning they are able to locate to more expensive areas and still be profitable.

The above described implications are of influence on the current situation in low income urban areas, where accessibility to fast food restaurants is sometimes better than accessibility to supermarkets. This could mean that people with low personal mobility are restricted to the consumption of low quality food, thereby causing negative impacts on personal health and increasing obesity numbers among these low income groups. Of course, these are all very general implications: cities, even in the US, differ greatly, and food deserts may as well occur among high income groups or other specific portions of the population.

Range of solutions
To make sure that people in low income areas are able to obtain a more diverse and healthier range of food products, a wide range of policy measures could be implemented. For example, supermarkets could be encouraged to locate closer to low income areas by handing out tax benefits. However, supermarkets may have negative impacts on communities by driving out smaller stores, as well as by (further) increasing the need for the automobile as the transportation mode for food obtainment. Closely related is supporting the setup of more local grocery stores instead of big supermarkets, a measure that is part of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a nationwide initiative which was implemented in 2010. More opportunities may be provided by the encouragement of setting up community gardens, where local communities produce parts of their food themselves – with help of local governments and specialists.

An important statement to make is that, following multiple studies on the subject of urban food deserts in the United States, empirical evidence on the relationship between food access and distance to sources of healthy food is different. Food deserts are a complicated field of study that also involve various other factors, including personal habits in various contexts, as well as specific neighborhood characteristics such as safety (objective and subjective), local transport opportunities and its location relative to the rest of the urban area. It is therefore very difficult to study the relationship and research has to be done to be able to draw conclusions on the relationship between food source locations and urban food deserts, which in turn can lead to more effective policy making.

Top photo: an actual desert in western Arizona – taken by Jeroen de Regt (2012).