The Health Impacts of Food Insecurity Within an Urban Environment

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It completely disregards and invalidates the implementation of local markets (non-liquor stores and gas stations). A study was conducted in a low-income neighborhood in San Diego, California; which is known for providing access to “affordable, fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate foods” (Pascale et al, 1). This study focused on the ethnicity and cultural acceptability to comprehend social geographies. As a result of this study, almost 50% of the surveyed food stores are classified as ethnic markets. This particular group of stores consisted mostly of grocery, specialty, and convenience stores. The overlaying trend that can be found amongst of these stores is that they are small businesses, that generally cater to the regional demographic.

“In fact, 80% of independent grocery stores in City Heights, are associated with a specific ethnic group. Unlike liquor stores or gas stations, which almost never have any obvious ethnic affiliation, these types of stores are more likely to offer fresh produce, meat, bread, dairy, and other food staples” (Pascale et al, 9).

Ethnic markets/stores contribute greatly to the surrounding community by marketing to specific groups where products and/or food culture aren’t normalized within the United States (Asian markets, halal, etc.) (Pascale et al. 2017). Despite their vast contributions, these markets are often racialized, and the façade of innutritious expensive food being sold inside a “hole-in-a-wall.” This false imagery leads to unintentional harm within ethnic food systems due to lack of understanding and consciousness of distinctive needs of heterogeneous communities and groups (Pascale et al. 2017). An example of this misunderstanding can be seen in through initiatives where racial and cultural implications aren’t considered and strictly follow the parameters set by the USDA. An example of such initiatives is Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against child obesity. The $400 million initiative’s proposed goal was to essentially bring quality food retailers to disadvantaged low-income areas (Holtzman 2010).

“…proposed as part of the fiscal year 2011 budget, [it] aims to boost public health by eliminating urban and rural food deserts within 7 years” (Holtzman, 1).

When analyzing these initiatives, one of the common factors that is often overlooked is affordability. Pascale et al defines affordability as the reasonable or lower pricing of fresh produce. Through the Pascale’s study, research noted that ethnic markets have tendency to be affordable for residential community, purchasing “fresh produce at a lower price than non-ethnic markets” (Pascale et al, 12). This occurs due to the higher percentage of smaller grocers (ethnic grocers) where a large array of produce is sold. Comparatively to non-ethnic stores (mostly convenience stores and gas stations) counterparts where the finite variety of products is typically priced higher than the national average (Pascale et al 2017). Two other neglected factors that Pascale mentions are cultural acceptability and accessibility.

“[Cultural acceptability is] the [protection of] the rights of food insecure people, fosters sustainable livelihoods, addresses the cultural value of food practices, acknowledges situated knowledge of nutrition and health, and promotes food sovereignty and non-hierarchical food-related decision-making. In an urban setting where the majority of the population obtains food from retailers, ethnic markets are places that provide more than specific ingredients; they sustain immigrant livelihood, enable food of racial and ethnic identities through food practices” (Pascale et al, 13).

Accessibility involves overall community (or individual) availability, attainability, mobility, and convenience. It examines the requirement of mobility and/or access to transportation for traveling to stores.

“…walking access to transportation to travel to a store doesn’t guarantee availability of fresh, healthy, and affordable food…[and] its corporate structure, large size, low prices, and high diversity make it an atypical ethnic market and statistical outlier, it would bias the comparison between ethnic and non-ethnic markets…” (Pascale et al, 13).

Researcher, Christopher E. Plano analyzes this relationship between mobile/transit accessibility and employment access. He studies low-income communities within Baltimore, Maryland through the application of transportation analysis zones (TAZ). This highlights how mobile access (or lack thereof) contributes to the dilemma of food security within an urban setting.

“Nationally, low-income individuals often live in areas with few employment opportunities8,9,10,11,12,13 and few supermarkets that provide healthy food.14,15,16 Because of limited income, these individuals cannot relocate to wealthier areas where these necessities are located17 or afford personal transportation18 to travel to these areas. As a result, they spend considerable time and money to access jobs and healthy food using public transit.” (Plano 2015, 2).

Despite being debunked by endless research and study, the analytical paradigm of food accessibility still remains applicable where the “desert metaphor remains powerful and, as we have experienced in years of fieldwork in the community, is used extensively by local residents and community organizations to describe the neighborhood’s food environment and justify change” (Pascale et al, 15).

As with most, like Fanny Carlet (2017) and James A. Montgomery et al. (2016), would opt for a solution to urban food insecurity through law and policy, government initiatives and the community involvement.

“Community gardens can take on the role of neighborhood gathering spaces, often used for large formal events in addition to informal gatherings (Lawson 2004; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny 2004). Urban dwellers may participate in gardening as a means of creating safe outdoor spaces that would address both negative influences of vacant lots— especially drug dealing and perception of personal safety—and alleviate space constraints due to the small size of their living quarters (Garvin, Cannuscio, and Branas 2013; Schmelzkopf 1995).” (Carlet 2017, 10)

However, others like Mari Gallagher argue that the issue can’t be solved only through the implication and development of quality grocers but also through the implication of education (Holtzman 2010). “Affordable wholesome food alone does not alter eating habits” as Holtzman states and argues that several overlying cultural factors play a key role. Gallagher and Holtzman both agree that “determining which locales have the greatest need for subsidies, as well as keeping politics from affecting the flow of money, will be challenging. It is important to make sure we’ve armed with neutral data that directs the flow of resources” (2010).

Throughout my research, I’ve come across a lot of data regarding the nutritional impacts of food (fruit, vegetables, sugar, etc.), diet-related illness, price disparity among healthy and non-healthy food and food accessibility. I accessed the 2018 State indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). This report analyzes and emphasizes different methods so as to potentially increase the purchase, supply and demand of fruits and vegetables across the United States of America. The overriding goal of this study is to improve the U.S. population’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This report states that the average American doesn’t meet the necessary daily intake of fruits and vegetables, despite the substantiate health benefits. The CDC proposes that this is due to lack of access and affordability. This is very significant to those of the U.S. population that face several challenges such as food insecurity.

There were several key findings that were highlighted in this report. This report highlighted that as of 2018, 10 states adopted policies on the food services guidelines. It emphasizes the importance of the selling and serving of healthy foods. “Food service guidelines increase access to healthy food options (e.g. fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains) in worksites, state agencies, parks and recreation centers and other institutional settings” (CDC, 3). Another key finding that was highlighted was that 47 U.S. states adopted policies that support farm-to-school and farm-to-ECE (Early Care and Education). This is proposed to increase the percentage of student access to locally grown produce such as school gardening, etc. it also encourages education of nutrition and agriculture. 32 states have already established food policy councils that support regional food systems and intend to increase access to nutritional food.

According to the CDC only 12.2% of adults meet proper fruit intake and only 9.3% of adults meet proper vegetable intake. The statistics for food consumption amongst youth are just as bad. An average of 9% of adolescent children meet the standard fruit intake and only 2% meet the vegetable intake. Overall multiple studies and research have shown that food is linked to health. Throughout human history, food has been used for not only fundamental nourishment and necessity but has also played a significant role in medicine. The overlying rule states that poor diet quality contributes negative health impacts such as illness and obesity. Essentially, as anthropologist Ludwig Fuerbach plainly states “man is what he eats.”

This report classifies these statistics into three main categories: improving fruit and vegetable access for individuals and families; improving fruit and vegetable access for children; food system support for fruit and vegetables. According to these indicators, there are an average of 27 farmer’s markets per 100,000 residents. In addition to the establishment of the 2014 State Policy on Food Service Guidelines, about 47% of school districts participate in farm-to-school programs. According 2018 data, there are about 234 local food policies in place and about 212 food hubs nationally.

I additionally analyzed data from the food desert locator provided by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. This data was initially released and finalized in the early 2011. However, this data is updated regularly and was last updated in 2017. This data provides population statistics for census tracts that meet the USDA’s current definition of “food desert.” Even though this data is up to date, it however neglects to some areas where that loosely fits the qualification for food desert according to the USDA. This report provides data for the following:

  • State (State)
  • County name (CountyName)
  • Census urbanized area tract (URBAN)
  • Total population (TOTALPOP)
  • Percentage of population with low-access to supermarket or large grocery store (PERCENT_LOWA_Pop)
  • Number of people with low-access to supermarket or large grocery store (LOWA_POP)
  • Percentage of total population that is low-income with low-access (PERCENT_LOWI)
  • Number of low-income people with low-access (LOWI)
  • Percentage of housing units without a vehicle with low-access (PERCENT_HUNV)
  • Number of housing units without a vehicle with low-access (HUNV)
  • Percentage of children age 0-17 with low-access (PERCENT_KIDS)
  • Number of children age 0-17 with low-access (KIDS)
  • Percentage of people age 65+ with low-access (PERCENT_SENIORS)

About 58.5% of the U.S population has low-access to supermarkets and/or large grocery stores. About 13.7% of that population is low-income. About 281,709 people with low-income have low-access, and about 23% hold residency but don’t have access to a vehicle. About 15.6% of children between the ages of 0-17 have low-access to supermarkets. About 7.6% of elderly (age 65+) have low-access to supermarkets.

Food plays a very significant role in the livliehood of all living being. Just as deer rely on vegetation for food or birds on fruit/berries and insects, humans are dependent on the sustainability of food. Just as very living creature, human acquire their sustenance from the earth and the nutrients it bears. Logically one could understand the importance of food and how it might impact one’s health, particularly when there is a significant lack of access. As the USDA characterizes food deserts as residential areas where there is a lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores. However, this negates the how in the low-income communities where there are supermarkets, but they don’t supply nutritional fresh food. A significant amount of research and study displays the correlation between that are categorized as food deserts and the rise of obesity and food-related health risk. These studies not only highlight the monetization of food and how it along with several overlaying factors (socioeconomic status, etc.) impact the overall health of community.


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Holzman, David C. “Diet and Nutrition: White House Proposes Healthy Food Financing Initiative.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 118, no. 4, 2010, doi:10.1289/ehp.118-a156.

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Plano, Christopher E., et al. “Considering Public Transit: New Insights into Job and Healthy Food Access for Low-Income Residents in Baltimore, Maryland.” Environmental Justice, vol. 8, no. 3, 2015, pp. 65–71., doi:10.1089/env.2015.0003.

Ramankutty, Navin, et al. “Trends in Global Agricultural Land Use: Implications for Environmental Health and Food Security.” Annual Review of Plant Biology, vol. 69, no. 1, 2018, pp. 789–815., doi:10.1146/annurev-arplant-042817-040256.

Widener, Michael J., et al. “Agent-Based Modeling of Policies to Improve Urban Food Access for Low-Income Populations.” Applied Geography, vol. 40, 2013, pp. 1–10., doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2013.01.003.

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The Health Impacts of Food Insecurity within an Urban Environment. (2019, Feb 15). Retrieved April 20, 2024 , from

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