With a new guest author this week, we look at the unequal access to the critical resource of fresh food in the United States, and the issues of public health and economic incentives which surround food and food service markets. The issue is close to home. In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) labeled half of South Dallas, Texas a food desert.
University of Texas-Dallas MPA ’14
Going grocery shopping is a task that many people find monotonous. A trip to the grocery store is usually accompanied with a mindset of “get in, get out.” But for a large population, the ability to get fresh foods from a grocery store is extremely difficult, and has serious consequences for physical health. 23.5 million Americans live in what is termed a food desert.
A food desert is an area consisting of one square mile that does not have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. These areas tend to be impoverished with many residents who do not own vehicles, forcing them to walk or take public transportation to the nearest food source. These food sources are not grocery stores containing fresh foods, but instead are convenience stores, dollar stores, and pharmacies selling non-nutritious foods at a higher cost.
There are several economic reasons why grocery store owners have not been quick to expand their businesses into a low-income area. Reasons range from the fear of profit loss due to an “insufficient customer base” to the high security and insurance costs to cover potential crime. It is also very hard to negotiate zoning regulations in dense urban areas for the large building and parking lot of a grocery store. Another factor large-scale grocers are challenged with is meeting the needs of racially- mixed groups who typically reside in dense urban areas. Most chain grocery stores are placed in homogenous suburban areas and lack market research on demographics that reside in urban low-income areas. This information is necessary for grocers to know what merchandise will sell in their stores.
Despite these inhibiting factors, large companies including Starbucks and Home Depot decided to venture out into low-income communities and test out business. With much surprise these companies both earned profits “far in excess” of what they expected, showing that neighborhood income is not a predictor of business profit. The examples of these large chain companies show that grocery stores can be successful in low-income communities as well. Also, the opportunity for smaller grocery businesses to open becomes available as a potential solution to the food desert problem in certain areas. Smaller scale grocery stores can fit into urban areas and provide a variety of fresh foods specifically catered to the population of each area.
Due to the lack of access to fresh food sources, the rate of individuals with health related issues is significantly higher in food desert communities than in food-secure communities. Food-insecure individuals tend to overeat when food is available, leading to weight gain and eventually obesity. Most people living in food deserts do not have access to plant based foods and whole grains, so instead they eat foods with high levels of saturated fat and trans-fat, leading to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Studies have found that if healthier foods were made to be widely available and less expensive, then a shift from purchasing energy-dense foods to purchasing healthy fresh foods would occur among individuals. This also affects children, who are depend upon their parents for the food they eat. If parents only have access to unhealthy food choices then their children will be unhealthy as well, continuing the cycle.
Foods that are necessary for following the dietary guidelines issued by medical and government organizations are usually unavailable in food deserts. This means that people living in these areas are not able to access foods which are required to have complete health. Providing our bodies with nutrition is a necessity to life and a right all people should have. Unequal food access is an injustice that can be solved through innovative business practices and stronger local-level public health policy.