The Food Empowerment Project describes food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.”
Areas classified by the USDA as food deserts have, on average, 3x fewer supermarkets than wealthier neighborhoods. The alternative to supermarkets is local grocery stores where access to fresh foods is unreliable and prices are 3-37% more expensive than larger chain stores. Many food insecure families cannot afford the price hike and are forced to resort to unhealthy alternatives. Instead of the fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish necessary in a complete and healthy diet, residents living in food deserts are limited to highly processed foods found in gas stations, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants.
Adolescents who don’t have access to healthy foods have been affected as a result. Obesity has increased tenfold among adolescents over the past four decades and malnutrition has become rampant: although the dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that girls 14 to 18 years old should eat at least 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables each day and boys in the same age range should eat at least 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables, only about 7 percent of students in the United States met the daily recommendations for fruit, and just 2 percent met the recommendations for vegetables. Without vegetables, teens miss out on the vitamins, minerals and fibers essential to their diet. The highly advertised processed foods substituted for vegetables adversely affect teen's health. The lack of fiber causes spikes in insulin levels and the abundance of trans fats promote arterial plaques that increase the risk of heart disease and raise LDL cholesterol levels. Moreover, processed foods are designed to be addictive. A reporter from the New York Times finds, "like cigarettes and cocaine, [processed foods'] ingredients are derived from naturally occurring plants and foods that are stripped of components that slow their absorption, such as fiber, water and protein. Then their most pleasurable ingredients are refined and processed into products that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, enhancing their ability to light up regions of the brain that regulate reward, emotion and motivation."
Although increasing the availability of grocery stores with consistent access to healthy foods in food deserts seems to be the logical solution, Karen Washington, the founder of rise and root farm, thinks the problem is more complex.
Washington, who has worked with Bronx neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens, invented the term “food apartheid.” She felt that the label food desert is “an outsider term” because it describes a desolate area when, in reality, these vibrant and underserved communities have enormous potential, and simply installing grocery stores owned by executives living outside of the Bronx isn't tapping into that potential. Instead, Washington believes that Black and Latinx Bronx locals need to be given the opportunity to own their own stores and businesses. Until residents in underserved communities know how to invest, how to own their own homes, how to own their own businesses and how to be financially literate, poverty will continue to persist, and families won't be able to afford fresh foods regardless of their access to larger grocery stores.
In the interim, there are ways you can help. Green Bronx Machine, a not-for-profit in the South Bronx, creates local farm stands, delivers food to families, and has grown over 5000 lbs of fresh food in Bronx gardens. By supporting local not for profits and donating to community fridges, you can help Bronx communities reach their full, untapped potential!
Check out our retweet of the Black Detour’s short video following a mother living in a food desert: