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Reclaiming Food Deserts

Food is still a basic human need; there has not been any discussion regarding that in the last five years opposing that view. Food and an ability to consistently access nutrition are fundamental, as it supports individual growth, energy levels and immune system functioning. (Stray Dog Institute, 2022) The role of food in the last five years has changed very little, but that was the expectation going into this piece. The more important aspect, one more prone to change in the last five years, may make for more exciting reading, food deserts. I use the word excitingly with caution, as the topic of Food deserts is not a laughing matter and is a significant problem for many.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the subject as “a low-income tract where a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store” (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). Despite the widespread acknowledgement that the United States is a developed market economy, with ridiculous amounts of wealth and resources within its borders, it is interesting to note that the US is often in the spotlight regarding food deserts. How can a country so powerful and wealthy on the world stage fail to provide ample opportunities for its residents to purchase nutritious food? It is staggering to realize, but nine mil­lion peo­ple have lim­it­ed access to a super­mar­ket or gro­cery store in the United States. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2021)

Food deserts are not spread out equally, either. Food deserts have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect on Black com­mu­ni­ties, accord­ing to a 2014 study from Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty.  (Food Empowerment Project, 2022) Studies have shown that affluent communities will contain as many as three times more supermarkets than their less affluent counterparts. Further, ‘white neighbourhoods’ contain four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black neighbourhoods. (Food Empowerment Project, 2022) On top of this, the existing grocery stores in African-American communities are usually significantly smaller and contain a much smaller selection of products, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. 

With such a significant problem faced in supposedly one of the world’s most developed countries, what is being done to solve it? That is the basis of this article; here, I will look at three approaches to tackling the food desert crisis in the United States that have been prevalent in the last five years. Essentially this can be seen as a follow-up to the “Food Deserts in US Cities: fast-food dependence in low-income areas” article published in 2017. 

Envi­ron­men­tal, pol­i­cy and indi­vid­ual fac­tors shape eat­ing habits and pat­terns

One of the most prevalent frameworks to fight food deserts is Envi­ron­men­tal, pol­i­cy and indi­vid­ual fac­tors shaping eat­ing habits and pat­terns. This can include a multitude of different factors and policies to fight, including incentivizing grocery stores through financial rewards to build in underserved areas, Furthering financial support and guidance for small businesses, partnering with local communities when choosing the appropriate approaches to fighting food insecurity and fund city-wide programs that encourage healthier eating. 

The funding and creation of programs to encourage healthier eating has been implemented in many US cities and has seen great success in the City of Minneapolis. The local government used a city-wide survey on healthy eating habits, revealing that over 94% of surveyed residents would purchase a higher rate of fresh produce, given that the “Minneapolis Health Corner Store initiative” was enacted. This initiative would require all small corner stores to stock a certain amount of fresh produce on their shelves. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021) Using city-wide programs like in Minneapolis can help local government gauge the need for programs such as the Corner Store Initiative and help fight against food deserts.

Incentivizing grocery stores through financial rewards to build in underserved areas has successfully been used in California. The state government helped produce a “public-private partnership loan fund called FreshWorks works”. (Keleher, A. et al., 2016) The fund essentially provides a 200 million dollar investment pool to provide loans, support and grants to supermarkets that want to build and provide to underserved communities. Thus alleviating food insecurity in these areas. 

The Problems with Data Collection + Dollar Store Restrictions 

This may come as a surprise to many, but how the United States collects its data is potentially further exacerbating the plight of food deserts. The current data collection methods make it possible to overlook communities located in food deserts. The problem is due to how the US government’s North American Industry Classification (NAICS) categorises outlets that sell food. (Food Empowerment Project, 2022) This system is vital as it is used by all federal statistics agencies when classifying business establishments. The current system allows small corner stores to be statistically bunched together with larger supermarkets. Essentially neighbourhoods that may contain a few small convenience stores with limited fresh produce can give off the appearance of having adequate food provisions even though the products offered are minimal and often processed foods. (Food Empowerment Project, 2022)

Another policy that looks to limit the number of small convenience stores with limited produce is the implementation of “Dollar Store Restrictions”. A pilot campaign was introduced in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2018, which passed an ordinance limiting the introduction of new dollar stores in the cities North, predominantly communities with limited healthy food options. Dailee, A. (2021) To those unaware, the dollar store is your prototypical mini-mart in the United States, where you may go to pick up snacks or buy alcoholic beverages.

However, they often do not offer a range of fresh produce and meats. These stores saturate communities and, in turn, make it difficult for actual supermarkets to set up shop. Tulsa has introduced mandates restricting retail stores under 12,000 square feet from opening within a mile of an existing mini-mart. Dailee, A. (2021) The areas in which these laws were passed have already seen the benefits. Many of these communities have already attracted new grocery stores, which provide communities with much-needed food security. 

Innovative Community Solutions

Community resilience is evident in the fight against food deserts in the United States. Many innovative community initiatives have been planned and implemented to alleviate food insecurity at a time when their political leaders seem to be doing so little. Mobile markets have been seen in many underserved areas in recent years, sometimes at local transport hubs. These meals-on-wheels initiatives are popping up across the country, from California to Michigan. Dailee, A. (2021) Making fresh produce affordable is only have of the battle.

Unfortunately, many people who do not own cars cannot make the journeys to supermarkets weekly or bi-weekly. So the idea of bringing the supermarket to them is genius. Another way people have approached this is to call for improvements in the existing public transport systems. As mentioned before, if getting to a supermarket is a big problem, accessing healthy food options will always be a problem. Alongside the many other advantages, improving public transport may strike a telling blow in the fight against food deserts in the United States.

Source: Hub City Farmers Market

Conclusion

Whilst a lot has changed in the last five years, little has changed on the macro-scale regarding food deserts. Unfortunately, many people living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries cannot access enough healthy food. Yet, despite the best efforts of many community leaders and innovative policy initiatives outlined above, unless local, regional and national governments take such a pivotal issue to heart, food deserts may be here to stay. It seems almost paradoxical. This is the same country with so many flaunting their wealth and is the birthplace of overconsumption. If someone else looks at this topic in another five years from now, I hope the tone is much different. I hope the outstanding efforts and initiatives mentioned above have made a real impact in the fight to eradicate food deserts in the United States.

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