We’re living in very contradictory times when it comes to food and it’s accessibility, especially here in the United States. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world; America has approximately nineteen million people living in food deserts, with many others residing in areas known as food swamps; both of which deliver a severe and detrimental impact on health and wellness.
Food deserts represent areas with multifaceted barriers that restrict access to (healthy) food, specifically nutritious fruits and vegetables. Frequently referred to in geographical terms; food deserts are commonly understood to mean locations that have no grocery outlets within reasonable distance and/or places only served by convenience stores that have a limited food selection. But there is more to it than mere physicality.
Typically found in populations with significant levels of financial insecurity, food deserts are often exacerbated by a practice known as supermarket redlining; big grocery chains closing their stores in low-income areas to relocate in profitable suburbs and/or refusing to build in low-income areas. With a disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and Communities of Colour who have seen decades of structural divestment and isolation — fueled by racist practices — the term ‘food desert’ becomes a sanitized misnomer that distracts from its generational devastation.
They are [food deserts] the result of systematic racism and oppression in the form of zoning codes, lending practices, and other discriminatory policies rooted in white supremacy. Using the term desert implies that the lack of healthy and affordable food is somehow naturally occurring and obscures that it is the direct result of racially discriminatory policies and systematic disinvestment in these communities. | NRDC – Food Apartheid: Racialized Access to Healthy Affordable Food
Living in a food desert or under ‘food apartheid’ (a phrase that’s becoming more prominent) means residents have to rely on small corner stores or gas stations for access to wholesome foods. These establishments may stock fresh produce but their range/buying power is limited; with prices often being much more expensive than the full service supermarkets that are not so easily reached. Local fast food and convenience retailers subsequently become the most attainable options in terms of accessible distance and financial affordability. This effectively restricts a persons ability to reliably gather the foods they require to fortify their wellness which can contribute to diet-related health conditions.
Food swamps are another version of desertification that limit the availability of nutritious produce within specific neighbourhoods. Despite the presence of supermarkets that provide affordable fresh fruits and vegetables; food swamps have an overabundance of convenience/junk and fast food outlets that vastly outnumber healthy options within the area. Where I live, for example, the one grocery store in my locality (within a two-mile radius) is surrounded by more than twenty fast-food restaurants. And while there are more supermarkets a car ride away; for many people living with financial insecurity, owning/operating a car can be an expense that potentially establishes another barrier.
Being able to manage nourishment and physical well-being should be an equitable right extended to everyone regardless of income, locality and race/ethnicity. Barriers that prevent choice and accessibility to healthful and/or culturally appropriate foods need to be eliminated.
So what can you do to help fight against food insecurity?
- Find out what supplies your local food bank needs and donate what you can
- Support hunger relief organizations that operate both nationally and globally like Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, National Black Food & Justice Alliance, Food Empowerment Project, World Central Kitchen and Action Against Hunger
- Support your local community food gardens and farms
- Petition/contact your local government or state officials to remove any barriers that restrict community-based action and initiatives such as:
- zoning law/permit changes to allow for fresh fruit and vegetable street vending
- zoning law/permit changes to allow for pop-up affordable farmers markets in areas of need
- policies to end supermarket redlining including tax incentives for major chain food outlets if they build/set up in food deserts
- enhanced and subsidized public transportation options to/from full service grocery stores
- funding for local fresh food programs in low-income communities
Even though this article focuses on the United States; food insecurity remains a global issue that needs addressing. No matter where you are reading this from there is likely population areas experiencing the effects of food deserts and/or swamps where you live. I hope this serves as a call to action to achieve what you can locally/further afield; to make sure access to food is boldly protected and fueled by equality.
What initiatives do you support that work to eliminate food insecurity? What community-based food initiatives have you seen in your local area? Do you think supermarket redlining should be made illegal?
What Are Food Deserts? All You need To Know – HealthLine