By Lycke Holmén

Many government programs have aimed to tackle America’s ‘food deserts’ — poor urban or rural areas in which a significant portion of the population have limited access to fresh produce and affordable healthy food options, leading to less nutritious diets and increased obesity rates. With the low purchasing power of the local population, these desert communities have a hard time attracting food retailers. This is disproportionately a reality for minority communities, invoking both class and racial divides. In addition to poverty, transport challenges are a second defining factor; many rely upon public transportation to travel long distances to the nearest grocery store, leaving few options other than the often unhealthy and processed foods provided by corner shops and fast food vendors. 

While there have been extensive accessibility programmes in lower-income neighbourhoods in several states, much thanks to the Obama administration’s public health initiatives, studies are still in disagreement over whether food inequality is really a question of location or of class. Will improving access to healthy food really combat the obesity epidemic and improve public health?

Looking at the numbers, the development seems to be heading in the right direction. Since 2010, the country has seen a 15 percent decline in the number of individuals living in areas with limited supermarket access. However, recent studies show that building new grocery stores did not in fact change the dietary habits of local households, suggesting that the issue is more complicated than just leading a horse to water. A 2019 study by Stanford University found that only a small percentage of nutrition inequality had to do with uneven supply, and that it was in fact customer preference which was the main deciding factor. Making things even more complicated, the link between obesity rates and areas with a high density of fast food chains has been proven to be even stronger than in areas with sparse food sources, telling us that not only does America have a problem of food deserts, but also of food swamps.

The relationship between food consumption and education should also not be ignored; inadequate dietetic knowledge is often cited as one of the lead causes of unhealthy habits. Low-income families may not only lack the economic means to buy fresh local produce, but also the time and knowledge of how to cook and prepare healthier alternatives. The good news is that efforts are already underway to combat this, and food banks across America today offer multiple educational programmes to promote cooking skills, budgeting, and food safety.

Access to food options is clearly not a silver bullet for food injustice, and while it may be one important piece of the puzzle, it fails to address the fundamental problem of nutritional inequality, which is poverty. To no one’s surprise, lower income populations are more likely to be food insecure, and while eliminating food deserts may help local populations to decrease their travel distance and transportation costs, it will not completely transform their purchasing habits. Most often, people will simply go from shopping the same groceries at a faraway supermarket to a new supermarket in more close proximity to their home — pointing instead to the importance of food subsidy programmes and community-based solutions such as community-run farmers markets and not-for-profit grocery stores.

By Lycke Holmén

Illustration: Gabriella Borg Bruchfeld

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