Food Desert

food desert by jurgen mantzke

A food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. Food deserts are also linked with supermarket shortage.

The food desert concept was first introduced in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s to examine disparities in food pricing and to describe geographical areas with limited access to retail grocery stores. A food desert is a food environment unsupportive of health; it is defined by barriers which restrict access to healthful foods. Barriers may include lack of access to food retailers, availability of nutritious foods, or affordability of foods. Research has defined food deserts quantitatively or by neighborhood characteristics such as economic and social barriers.

‘Land-use policies that facilitate development of predominantly wealthy and white suburban neighborhoods’ have altered the distribution of food stores. In the interest of profitability, larger supermarkets have followed this trend and are most prevalent in these white suburban neighborhoods. Prevalence of food deserts in poorer neighborhoods is driven by lack of consumer demand, as the poor have less money to spend on healthful, nutritious food. From an economic standpoint, low demand does not justify supply.

Food retailers are also discouraged from opening chains in low-income rural and urban communities because of crime rates, transportation costs, and low return on investment. As a result, the food supply within inner-cities includes less variety, denying some urban residents the benefits of healthful foods at affordable prices. Remaining food retailers in inner-cities are gas stations, convenience stores, and liquor stores. A diet based on foods from these locations consists primarily of processed foods high in calories, sugars, salt, fat, and artificial ingredients. Health disparities related to food access and consumption are associated with residential segregation, low incomes, and neighborhood deprivation.

The main factor used to classify a community as a food desert is distance from nutritional food retailers. There is no standard for ‘inadequate’ access or ‘adequate’ access to foods. This can be a limited classification and scientific limitation as individuals may live close to a retailer that provides nutritious food, but this food may be more expensive, creating an additional barrier to access. Access to food is calculated by distance of consumer residence to nearest supermarket or grocery store. Distance is measured from centroid of an area (by zip code, census tract, or block) to nearest supermarket or grocery store. Standards of access and methods of measurement vary among researchers to determine food deserts. Research suggests food deserts exist if consumer residence is one to ten miles away from the nearest supermarket. The USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan aims to standardize the methods of assessment for the availability and price of foods in stores.

Residents of food desert areas have no alternative but to utilize private cars, travel several miles on foot, or use public transit to gain access to healthful food. Consumers without cars are dependent on food sources in their closest proximity. Ownership and access to a vehicle may be the best marker for access regardless of Socioeconomic status. A study revealed that the distance traveled to food stores is an independent predictor of BMI (Body Mass Index). The problem increases in rural food desert areas, where closing the distance to nutritional food access is impossible on foot.

Researchers have determined that distance to food is also psychological. The physical distance from fresh foods determine eating behaviors and preferences for palatable, processed foods. To create a healthy relationship with food, researchers recommend creating a direct connection between fresh produce and consumer. Examples of this include urban farm programs and incorporating healthful foods in schools.

Fringe food retailers in food deserts can have a 30-60% markup on prices, provide a limited selection of products, and a dominant marketing of processed foods. Comparing prices that consumers pay for similar foods purchased at a different outlets determines disparities in real food prices. Low-income individuals are more likely to purchase inexpensive fats and sugars over fresh fruits and vegetables that are more expensive on a per calorie basis. Nutritious foods such as whole grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than high calorie junk foods. ‘Energy-dense [junk foods] cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods.’

A rural food desert is generally classified as a county where residents must drive more than 10 miles to the nearest supermarket chain or supercenter, whereas an urban food desert is classified as having to drive more than a mile. Using this definition, twenty percent of rural counties are considered food deserts. Within these counties, there are approximately 2.4 million individuals determined to have low access to a large supermarket. This number may underestimate those truly at risk of food insecurity since it only takes into account the number of individuals 10 miles or more away from the nearest supermarket. There may be individuals that live closer, however if they don’t have a vehicle or public transportation, then even being just a mile away can present access issues. This is a scientific limitation in studies of rural food deserts.

There is an increased risk of rural food deserts as market pressures continue to negatively impact small grocers. Smaller grocers in rural areas struggle to be profitable for many reasons, such as low sales volumes, which can cause costs of goods to increase or make it difficult to purchase large volumes of perishable foods. This in turn creates issues with meeting wholesale food supplier’s minimum purchasing requirements. Economies of scale, which is when the costs of operating a store decrease as store size increases, and economies of scope, which is when the costs decrease as more product variety increases, suggests that larger stores that offer greater variety can offer lower prices. The market pressures experienced by small grocers in rural areas also lend to groceries being more expensive in these areas than in urban areas. For example, in New Mexico the same basket of groceries cost $85 for rural residents, and $55 for urban residents. However, this is not true of all rural areas.

As of 2007, the elderly made up 7.5 million of the 50 million people living in rural America. Most elderly live on a fixed income. A second issue faced by seniors is that they struggle with limited mobility. This can mean anything from having difficulty cooking and moving about their home, to not having a car or anyone nearby who could drive them to a store. Older persons and those with limited incomes are more likely to be dependent on family, friends, neighbors and others for transportation to purchase food. Older women are more likely than men to stop driving at younger ages or to have never driven, and minority women are even less likely to drive.

A third concern is that elderly have higher nutrient needs and are less able to tolerate the high sodium and sugar content typically found in processed foods. As people age, the degree of nutrient absorption in their digestive tract declines. Also, elderly tend to have existing diseases and/or take medications that interfere with nutrient absorption. Lastly, some seniors have time constraints that make it difficult to perform daily activities such as food shopping, especially when they are living with a sick spouse requiring a lot of their time and care. And for those who have recently lost a spouse and are sufferenig from depression, the desire to go to the store or cook for themselves can be greatly diminished, especially in the case of widows.

Initial research on food deserts explored the impact of retail flight from the urban core. More recent studies have explored the impact of food deserts in other geographic areas (e.g., rural and frontier), as well as among specific populations, such as minorities and elderly people. Studies of urban and rural food environments reveal significant potential for evidence-based interventions and policies to combat the growing obesity epidemic, and to decrease some health disparities.

Access is not the only determinant to healthful eating. There are many environmental determinants that predict a positive outcome in healthful eating for residents of current food desert areas, such as transportation, culture, social capital, and food price. A criticism of current research on food access and obesity assumes a ‘simplistic deprivation effect associated with poor-quality food environments.’ Research suggests that supermarkets are the most effective way to supply communities with a wide selection of fresh and relatively affordable healthful food. Moreover, supermarkets typically are open year-round, provide convenient hours of operation, and generally accept food stamps. As a result, many programs focus on increasing incentives for supermarkets to operate in these underserved areas. Some incentives include property or sales tax breaks. Community-level interventions that focus on getting healthful food to low-income areas through farmers markets, mobile carts, or community gardens.

In early 2010 the Obama administration unveiled the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) that will promote a range of interventions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery stores and other small businesses and retailers selling healthful food in communities that currently lack these options. The initiative provided more than $400 million in funding intended to bring grocery stores and healthful food retailers to low-income rural and urban communities. This effort is in concert with Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign to counter childhood obesity.

Another proposed solution involves increased local food production and distribution in urban centers. The New York City Regional Foodshed is an initiative examining the local food production capacity of the New York City Metropolitan Region.

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