Food Deserts: Access to Healthy Food

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Facts

  • Food desert is a term that became renowned in Scotland through UK government sponsored studies in the late 90’s. (Cummins & McIntyre 1)
  • About 23.5 million people in America live in food deserts
  • Food deserts may be under-reported because the North American Industry Classification System places small corner grocery stores (which often primarily sell packaged food) in the same category as grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods
  • Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s had a campaign to fight childhood obesity, “”Let’s Move,”” had a goal of eradicating food deserts by 2017 (unfortunately, they still exist).
  • There was a $400 million investment from the government towards this initiative, which provided tax breaks for supermarkets that opened in food deserts
  • Food insecurity has a high correlation with increased diabetes rates. In Chicago, the death rate from diabetes in a food desert is twice that of areas with access to grocery stores
  • People living in the poorest SES (social-economic status) areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas
  • With limited options, many people living in food deserts get meals from fast-food restaurants (USDA 2009)(White House Task force 2010)

Access to Unhealthy Food

While we are finding ways to make food accessible, we should also have a plan to limit the abundance of unhealthy foods. This picture here: gives a clear view of how the United States Department of Agriculture, a United States Federal Executive department, perceives the Food Desert Crisis. Their focus is primarily on providing access to healthy foods and this is not enough. There are other factors involved that can help fight the crisis of food deserts. The Food desert crisis is not just an issue of food accessibility, it’s a problem that has to factor in other issues like the overabundance of fast food restaurants in low income communities and the unhealthy options offered to these people through the smaller, mom-and pop grocery stores. These are just a couple of the factors that I would like to address.

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Take a look at the picture below that represents food deserts in America. What do we see? This picture speaks volumes about what is accessible in a Food Desert. This is a reality! We see fries, a burger, ice cream, popcorn and very little fruit. Only a banana and an avocado. This is a problem, yet represents the reality of what is easily accessible in a food desert.

FAST FOOD

Let’s take a look at Fast Food: People are more likely to make unhealthy food choices when fast food is the convenient and sometimes the cheaper option. One study showed, “”having at least one chain restaurant within a mile was associated with a 21.2% increase in frequency of fast food meals”” (Athens, Duncan, Elbel 7).

It’s not that the issue of fast food consumption only exist in low income communities. There’s heavy access to these places and less access to healthy foods, leaving these communities with very little choices. Many of these communities have supermarkets that are miles away and they lack transportation to get to them. According to different studies, there is greater access to fast food restaurants in low income and minority urban areas. “”Evidence is growing that access to an unhealthy food establishment increases consumption of fast food and fast food is a risk factor for obesity”” (Gordon-Larsen 2). Also, many researchers concluded that there are few to no supermarkets in low income areas and a great amount of fast food restaurants (Karpyn 2010).

The Small Grocery Store

Then there’s the problem of the local, small grocery store aka mom-and pop store: The local grocery stores in many low income urban communities are known for the sale of sugary, processed, high fat, high salt foods and lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

One article stated, in New York City and other urban communities, small convenience stores and fast food places are the main source where people are purchasing food. In these neighborhoods, there are few places where you can buy healthy food and again, few supermarkets (Gordon 2011). Research shows, in Camden NJ there are approximately 120 small grocery and convenience stores with few healthy food options and lack affordable, fresh and good quality fruits and vegetables. In general, many people in food desert communities complain about finding fresh, quality healthy food in the local, small grocery store (Chrisinger 2018).

What’s the Solution!

Experts say let’s bring the supermarkets back to these areas and equip the small grocery stores with healthy food. I propose that this is only a partial solution. Only encouraging food accessibility is not a solution. While the big (supermarkets) and small grocery stores are being equipped with incentives to help with fresh food, there should be restrictions on the number of fast food establishments that can open for business in low income communities. There should be some limitations and zoning put on fast food restaurants. This was an idea that was implemented in South Los Angeles, CA in 2008. Due to an increase in obesity rates amongst impoverished people, there was a one year long ban on new stand-alone fast food restaurants (Sturm, Cohen 1). Currently, this is an alternative that many municipalities around the country are considering. It may be a good idea to zone fast food restaurants to reduce access.

High access to unhealthy food makes the fight against food deserts ineffectual. We have to address the issues. It’s hard to believe that we live in a country where food deserts exist. But unfortunately, this crisis has hit impoverished areas in our country in a major way, especially our urban neighborhoods; where people live more than a mile away from access to healthy food and may not have transportation to get to their local supermarket, farmers market, etc. These are areas that are flooded with fast food restaurants and local grocery stores that sell foods consisting of high fat, high sodium, sweet and processed foods.

Many of these impoverished urban communities have people that are suffering and dying from all kinds of sicknesses and diseases because of a lack of access to healthy food. Supermarkets are leaving these communities and putting the fate of these people in the hands of the mom and pop neighborhood grocery stores and the fast food establishments. The argument is that people in these impoverished urban communities wouldn’t eat healthy even if they had access to healthy food, which is probably why you see many fast food restaurants thriving in these communities. One New York Times article, titled, “”Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’ll buy it”” gave insight on a study where the consuming and purchasing habits of people living in one particular food desert didn’t really make an impact after access to healthy food (Sanger-Katz 2015). Could it be that people have been trained to eat foods that are not healthy because of years within a cycle with no access to healthy food? The cycle can be changed!

Let’s change the cycle! Here is an action plan:

  • Push to have fast food restaurants zoned in food deserts
  • Community nutrition classes to educate on healthy behavior and eating habits
  • Get involved with the local low income neighborhood and help build vegetable and fruit gardens
  • Push to have incentives continually given to private supermarket owners
  • Encourage others to take community nutrition classes
  • Speak to local store owners about selling fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Encourage store owners to showcase fresh produce in visible areas of the stores
  • Continue to support healthy mobile food trucks like the Food Bank of South Jersey
  • Support the cause: According to the USDA: Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) continues to expand the availability of nutritious food to food deserts ”low-income communities without ready access to healthy and affordable food??”by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets with fresh and healthy food
  • Eat the banana instead of the fries

Citations

  1. “”PROVIDING AFFORDABLE, HEALTHY FOOD OPTIONS IN FOOD DESERTS.”” States News Service, States News Service, 7 Mar. 2016.
  2. Holzman, David. “”White House Proposes Healthy Food Financing Initiative.”” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 118, no. 4, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Apr. 2010, p. A156, doi:10.1289/ehp.118-a156.
  3. Ma, Xiaoguang, et al. “”Variation in Low Food Access Areas Due to Data Source Inaccuracies.”” Applied Geography, vol. 45, no. 1-2, Elsevier Ltd, Dec. 2013, pp. 131–37, doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2013.08.014.
  4. Chrisinger, Benjamin W., et al. “”Leveraging Citizen Science for Healthier Food Environments: A Pilot Study to Evaluate Corner Stores in Camden, New Jersey.(Survey).”” Frontiers in Public Health, vol. 6, Frontiers Research Foundation, Mar. 2018, p. 89, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00089.
  5. Gordon, Cynthia, et al. “”Measuring Food Deserts in New York City’s Low-Income Neighborhoods.”” Health and Place, vol. 17, no. 2, Elsevier Ltd, Mar. 2011, pp. 696–700, doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.12.012.
  6. Gordon-Larsen, Penny. “”Food Availability/convenience and Obesity.”” Advances in Nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), vol. 5, no. 6, Nov. 2014, pp. 809–17, doi:10.3945/an.114.007070.
  7. Shannon, Jerry. “”Food Deserts: Governing Obesity in the Neoliberal City.”” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 38, no. 2, SAGE Publications, Apr. 2014, pp. 248–66, doi:10.1177/0309132513484378.
  8. Sturm, Roland, and Cohen, Deborah A. “”Zoning for Health? The Year-Old Ban on New Fast-Food Restaurants in South LA.”” Health Affairs (Project Hope), vol. 28, no. 6, 2009, pp. w1088–97, doi:10.1377/hlthaff.28.6.w1088.
  9. James, Peter, et al. “”Do Minority and Poor Neighborhoods Have Higher Access to Fast-Food Restaurants in the United States?”” Health and Place, vol. 29, Elsevier Ltd, Sept. 2014, pp. 10–17, doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2014.04.011.
  10. Fielding, Jonathan E, and Simon, Paul A. “”Food Deserts or Food Swamps?: Comment on ‘Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores.'”” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 171, no. 13, American Medical Association, July 2011, pp. 1171–72, doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.279.
  11. Santorelli, Melissa, and Okeke, Janice. “”Evaluating Community Measures of Healthy Food Access.”” Journal of Community Health, vol. 42, no. 5, Springer US, Oct. 2017, pp. 991–97, doi:10.1007/s10900-017-0346-3.
  12. Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences???: Report to Congress . [Rev. Sept. 3, 2009]., U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2009.
  13. Cummins, Steven, and Macintyre, Sally. “”‘Food Deserts’??”evidence and Assumption in Health Policy Making.”” BMJ, vol. 325, no. 7361, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, Aug. 2002, doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7361.436.
  14. Athens, Jessica K., et al. “”Proximity to Fast-Food Outlets and Supermarkets as Predictors of Fast-Food Dining Frequency.”” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 116, no. 8, Elsevier Inc., Aug. 2016, pp. 1266–75, doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.022.
  15. Karpyn, Allison, et al. “”Policy Solutions to the ‘Grocery Gap.'”” Health Affairs (Project Hope), vol. 29, no. 3, 2010, pp. 473–80, doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0740.
  16. Sanger-Katz, Margot. “”Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’Ll Buy It .”” Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’Ll Buy It , 2015.
  17. America’s Worst 9 Urban Food Deserts. (2011, September 22). Retrieved November 3, 2015, from
  18. http://newsone.com/1540235/americas-worst-9-urban-food-deserts/
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