||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with North America and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2012)|
A food desert is a district with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. Instead of such stores, these districts often contain many fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
"Access", in this context, may be interpreted in three ways:
- Physical access to shops can be difficult if the shops are distant, the shopper is elderly or infirm, the area has many hills, public transport links are poor, or if the consumer has no car. Healthy options are unavailable. Carrying fresh food from grocers is also a challenge for individuals who must take transit or walk long distances.
- Financial access is difficult if the consumer lacks the money to buy healthy foods (generally more expensive, calorie for calorie, than less nutritious, sugary, and fatty 'junk foods') or if the shopper cannot afford the bus fare to remote shops selling fresh foods. This limits individuals to cheaper local fast food outlets. Other forms of financial access barriers come in the forms of inability to afford storage space for food, or, for the very poor, homelessness, or living in temporary accommodations that do not offer good cooking facilities.
- The consumer's mental attitude or knowledge about nutrition and food preparation can be major barriers limiting access to fresh produce and other healthy food choices. Consumers may lack cooking knowledge or have the idea that eating a healthy diet is not important.
Food deserts disproportionately affect socially segregated groups in urban areas, specifically single mothers, children, and the elderly living in underprivileged urban neighbourhoods. Families and individuals without a car are also at a higher disadvantage in terms of their access to healthy food in food deserts.
Many grocery stores that once existed in urban neighbourhoods have moved out of these areas and relocated in the suburbs at the same time as former residents (see urban sprawl). Low income earners and senior citizens who remain find healthy foods either unavailable or inaccessible as a result of high prices and/or unreachable locations. Conversely, in some rural areas, local fresh food outlets have closed, leaving shoppers in these areas with difficult access to healthful foods. Consumers who do not own cars are at a greater disadvantage in rural areas, particularly in areas where rural bus services have declined due to cutbacks in spending.
Although the term "food deserts" is now mainly used in the context of urban environments, the first case studies of consumers' inaccessibility to healthy foods were made in rural English villages. The Women's Institute in Britain examined the plight of elderly car-less widows left stranded by the closure of village shops and withdrawal of bus services as far back as the 1970s. Recent use of the term has stemmed from its use by the Obama Administration, and in and around Chicago.
Although it is difficult to make causal links between malnutrition in food deserts and health issues, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine states that the highest rates of obesity (32–40%) are in areas with no large supermarkets, while the lowest rates (21%) are among people living near supermarkets. Areas with higher rates of obesity are more prone to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Food insecurity for specific low-income groups has existed in urban environments since the emergence of large concentrations of populations in urban settings, roughly at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. The enclosure of the commons drastically reduced subsistence farming, hunting/gathering as survival strategies for low-income peasants. This, coupled with the development of large scale manufacturing, caused an influx of urban migration. In these urban areas, low-income groups were forced to rely on wage labour for survival. The new urban population had to rely on a limited amount of food transported from commercial farms, processed and then sold in small neighbourhood corner stores. The prices of this food, and the reduced amount of time workers had to buy and prepare food, limited their access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.
The use of the term “food desert” began in the United Kingdom in the 1990s to describe the rapidly decreasing number of grocers in urban, low-income neighbourhoods after World War II. The development of suburbs during this period attracted the majority of the working middle class to move to these new areas, leaving behind urban neighbourhoods with significantly lower populations and higher proportions of lower-income groups. Suburbanization and increased rates of car ownership for the middle class, created an economic and social niche for big-box supermarkets. These supermarket chains offered wide varieties and high quantities of food merchandise in one location, allowing consumers to engage in one-stop shopping. This also allowed supermarkets to meet economies of scale at lower costs than the traditional corner stores and markets. New supermarkets were located in suburban areas, which were not only cheaper to build in than urban areas, but were also located near the stores’ targeted consumers. The suburban location of these supermarkets also meant that they were almost impossible to reach without a car.
Within low-income urban neighbourhoods, the traditional corner stores and markets have had difficulty competing with the low prices of fresh produce and meats from supermarkets. This has caused many small-scale neighbourhood food retailers to go out of business in the last half of the 20th century. With the loss of many of these corner stores, and the absence of supermarkets within the inner city, the urban neighbourhoods’ access to healthy, fresh food has diminished.
Although the concept “food desert” was first used in the U.K., it has been adopted by social geographers and public health researchers to describe similar situations in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. American research has expanded food desert research by focusing on rural communities’ limited access to fresh produce and meat.
Today, researchers agree that lower income groups’ accessibility to nutritious food is not simply limited by geographical locations of inner-city neighbourhoods and suburban grocery stores. It is also based on health and nutrition knowledge, the economic cost of nutritious food, the physical abilities of individuals, and car ownership. Understanding the multiple causes of limited accessibility has allowed for more multifaceted solutions.
Commercial siting and zoning
In the last 50 years, supermarkets have appeared in urban areas as part of the process of urbanization. It has eased the life of urban dwellers by providing consumers with one location, easily accessible by car, where they can purchase all the products they need. Supermarkets, in turn, also profit from venturing into suburban areas where concentrated residential developments that house large households grow. Food retail stores assess factors that affect their profitability prior to venturing, and these factors, such as existence of concentrated consumers, influence the commercial siting decision. Studies have found that these factors that determine commercial siting can lead to creating spatial disparities in food availability. Food supermarkets take into account the traffic pattern in the potential location since it caters to drivers and people with large households. This may make larger food supermarkets to avoid inner cities where it has dense traffic and consists of single or small households. Another factor that influences commercial siting decision is the "quality of the catchment area" a type and number of consumers they can catch influence the profitability. The quality of catchment area is determined by age distribution, housing prices, and employment rate. Inner city neighborhoods that have low employment rate and low income level can be viewed as unprofitable and unsuited for a new site of commercial location. In fact, one of major retailers raised “a lack of ‘spending power’” as a reason not to locate in deprived neighborhoods.
Although zoning practices differ from country to country as well as from city to city, they also sometimes prevent food retailers to be present in neighborhoods. The nature of zoning is such that it is costly and time-consuming to change. Because of different zoning status' in particular areas, food retailers cannot operate in neighborhoods, such as industrial or residential zones, leaving the residents with less accessibility to fresh food. Zoning in some urban cities also restricts intense commercial development to major shopping roads and areas, but also allow less intensive “convenience oriented commercial developments” within residential neighborhoods. This creates a pattern where convenient stores that carry less healthy food are placed in isolated residential neighborhoods, creating a barrier for residents to access fresh food.
In some urban cities where zoning is left to the community, residents of affluent neighborhoods have greater ability to use zoning regulations to exclude undesirable land uses that seem to reduce neighborhood order and property values. This decreases accessibility to fresh produce in terms of distance, and forces residents to travel longer distances to get to the nearest grocery stores.
Many studies have found that consumption and diet pattern varies significantly according to socioeconomic backgrounds, age, gender and place of residence. For example, a study in the UK shows that average weekly consumption of fruit in high income household was twice as high as in low income households. Neighborhoods that are predominantly occupied with minorities also have been found to have less access to food retailers. In the United States, neighborhoods whose predominant residents are Hispanic and African American have less access to food retailers. In the research "Obesity and Supermarket Access: Proximity or Price?", the authors indicated that younger people and females more likely to shop at high-priced supermarkets while older people and males are likely to shop at medium-priced supermarkets. Individuals of particular socioeconomic backgrounds or ethnicity associate themselves with particular neighborhoods. It has been found in studies that those living in deprived neighborhoods tend to stay in neighborhoods that they associate themselves with, and do not go to other neighborhoods of different socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, a resident of a deprived neighborhood, who lives by the boundary with a neighboring affluent neighborhood, would not cross a street or walk a shorter distance to get to a grocery store in an affluent neighborhood.
Problems associated with food deserts
Studies of food deserts conducted in different countries don't show consistent links between food deserts and food costs/intake, however, the lack of accessibility to a variety of reasonably priced nutritious and fresh foods in neighborhoods can be an obstacle to achieving recommended diet. For example, in the census tract from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study in the US, it shows that the fruit and vegetable consumption of African Americans increased by 32% for each additional supermarket, and White Americans' fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 11% with the presence of 1 or more supermarket.
Some findings show that costs of food is 3% to 37% more for urban residents, compared to suburban residents who purchase the same products at supermarkets. Research also shows that a proportion of food costs is greater for people living on low income and from deprived neighborhoods. People from deprived neighborhoods purchase their food in smaller quantities with greater proportion of processed food due to high pricing or long distance to travel on food or on public transportation. This kind of shopping practice caused by economic and physical limitations, shapes their eating habits in a way that brings more risks to experience undernutrition or malnutrition. In one of the deprived neighborhoods in Brooklyn, it has been found that nearly 80% of adolescents and 90% of adults have less than five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Researchers speculate that lack of accessibility to supermarket and limited availability of nutritious food have contributed to malnutrition among the poor.
Obesity and diabetes
Obesity and weight status are results of diet and physical activity and no conclusions can be easily made by looking at the generalized diet of a particular population. However, many researches have shown that there is an association between high obesity rate and decreased economic and social resources. The inequity on getting better access to healthy food is considered one of cause that makes people obese. Residents of neighborhoods that are deprived access to fresh and nutritious food experience higher rates of obesity and overweight. It was reported that low income families and minority areas had more difficulties in getting healthy food from full-service supermarkets and grocery stores because of more distances they had to drive or walk. Families from deprived neighborhoods who have economic limitations in access to food tend to consume food that is primarily made of sugar and refined grains because they tend to be lower in cost. This consumption practice is easy to observe, but will make them prone to developing obesity and diabetes. The rate of obesity can be as high as 60% in some neighborhoods in the United States. Similarly, the rate of residents with diabetes is higher in deprived neighborhoods. In Bronx, more than 25% of adults are obese and 16% of adults have diabetes.
Because there are multiple possible causes of food deserts in a given area, it is necessary to have a high degree of knowledge about social, geographical, political and economic conditions in a specific area. Social relations, income levels, and age and marital demographics, as well as public transit routes, and geographical boundaries and barriers, are area-specific issues that must be taken into consideration when creating plans to improve accessibility of a given food desert. Many studies has shown that people who are living in areas close to full-service supermarket with healthy food have low body mass index (BMI), which means they have lower rates of obesity and overweight. Government policies and programs can have detrimental, nationwide effects on low-income neighbourhoods’ accessibility to nutritious food. The U.S. government’s Food Stamp Program, for example, has been criticized for increasing the availability of fast food to the targeted, low-income group. Because food stamps can be used in many kinds of food retailers, the program has been accused of increasing accessibility to non-nutritious foods, rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. Research done in low-income neighbourhoods in Chicago, for example, has shown that fast food retailers and convenience stores are the only locations in designated food deserts that accept government food stamps. Because there are a diverse number of neighbourhood-specific and nation-wide causes for food deserts, there must be a diverse number of solutions applied collectively to increase accessibility of nutritious food.
Urban Agriculture, or urban farms, provide some low-income areas with access to fresh fruits and vegetables within the inner-city neighbourhood. Urban farms allow residents in a given community to be involved in the growth and distribution of produce. These farms are usually established on small plots of unused land in urban city environments, and are cared for by urban farmers and local residents. These projects are usually paired with educational activities for children and adults within the community, which promotes healthy eating and balanced diets. The urban farm company Growing Power, for example, has proven to be an effective way to target food deserts in Milwaukee and Chicago. The company operates urban farms year round, generates profits of up to $200 000 per year, and also hires and trains 1000 urban, community farmers per year.
The Mobile Farmers Market is another community-initiated project that improves accessibility of fresh produce and meats. Although farmers markets are usually targeted at higher-income groups, researchers have examined ways to make these markets available to low-income groups as well. Lisa Markowitz examines how “low-income markets” were established in low-income neighbourhoods in Louisville, Kentucky, through federal government subsidies, municipal government programs, and community involvement. One important initiative discussed was allowing food stamps to be used at local farmers markets.
Car Sharing Programs and carpools in low-income neighbourhood allow families and individuals to have temporary access to a car, which increases the distance they can travel and the amount they can buy when grocery shopping. Car sharing programs, such as Car2Go, allow individuals to rent a car by the hour, and are available in many large cities across Canada, the U.S. and parts of Europe. Access to cars for low-income earners also means grocery shopping can be done less frequently.
Government policies and initiatives
Municipal and federal government initiatives are often necessary to support community projects in low-income neighbourhoods. Although community programs have high levels of knowledge about the needs of specific low-income neighbourhoods, they often lack the funding and legislative support to put plans into action. Government programs can offer funding for community/grass roots organizations, or offer subsidies and tax incentives for supermarkets, farmers markets, or car sharing programs to move into low-income urban neighbourhoods. Government programs can also initiate nation or region-wide collaboration on increasing accessibility to nutritious foods.
In 2008, the US government replaced the Food Stamp Program with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has put emphasis on increasing the availability of fresh produce in low-income neighbourhoods.
The Food Desert Oasis Act was introduced to Congress by Bobby Rush and the Committee of Agriculture in 2009 under the Obama administration as a federal program to improve low-income accessibility to nutritious food. The bill targets food desert zones in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Houston, Memphis, Birmingham, San Antonio, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta, Richmond (Virginia), Los Angeles, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. The bill also defines food desert businesses as stores selling products at “wholesale or retail business that derives at least 25% of its gross receipts from the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables.” The bill aims to offer designated food desert businesses tax benefits, such as increased tax credits for food desert rehabilitation sites, and tax-exemption for bond financing(congress bill). The bill also aims to expand the National Hunger-free Communities Network, and increase government support for 100% of the costs of these programs in designated food desert zones. As of November 2012[update] the bill has yet to be passed.
A variety of neighborhood level strategies are under way by grassroots organizers as well as public health and government organizations to reduce barriers to maintaining a healthy body weight. For example, in New York City, the municipal initiatives aim to increase accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables in the deprived neighborhood by introducing small vendors, called green carts. The city has planned to authorize 1,000 new small street vendors since 2008. Other cities in the country are also considering to initiate similar programs.
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