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A food desert is a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is alleged to be hard to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Some research links food deserts to diet-related health problems and health disparities in affected populations, but this phenomenon has been disputed.
Due to varied definitions, researchers have employed a variety of methods to assess food access including: directories and census data, focus groups, food store assessments, food use inventories, GIS technology, interviews, questionnaires and surveys measuring consumers food access perceptions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Access Research Atlas provides an interactive map that identifies areas of low food access in low income urban and rural areas.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 Origins
- 3 Measuring food access
- 4 Implications
- 5 Affordability
- 6 Rural food deserts
- 7 Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities
- 8 Research
- 9 Food desert issues by country
- 10 Beyond physical access
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
The term was first documented in a 1999 report by the Nutrition Task Force Low Income Project Team of the United Kingdom Department of Health. It is defined as “areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy foods”.
Some measures of food desertification factor in the type and quality of foods available for purchase and the ability or inability of residents to purchase them. Others focus on a community's proximity to supermarkets or other sources of low-cost wide-variety foods.
Research studies have employed varying empirical criteria for identifying food deserts; one study counted food deserts as "urban areas with 10 or fewer (grocery) stores and no stores with more than 20 employees". In Canada, food desert researchers evaluates the average cost of the "Ontario Nutritious Food Basket", 66 items from each four food groups, to evaluate the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods. The multitude of definitions which vary by country have fueled controversy over the existence of food deserts.
Racially and socioeconomically discriminatory policies and patterns of development such as Redlining have resulted in uneven distribution of resources including supermarkets. Food retailers are discouraged by a perceived low return of investment in low-income communities, as well as the higher crime rates and transportation costs. Researchers Bitler and Haider approach food deserts from the perspective of supply and demand. They explain that beyond the income of residents and the cost of food, the extra time spent and the availability of key ingredients used by various ethnic groups may reduce food access. As a result, residents of inner cities or rural food deserts have less access to healthful foods at affordable prices.
Measuring food access
The main criteria used to classify a community as a food desert is distance from or concentration of nutritional food retailers. 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; some researchers classify food desert areas as those one to ten miles away from the nearest supermarket. To meet the criteria to be considered a food desert by the USDA standards are a "low-access community", at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles). The concept behind this is that it is reasonable for a shopper to be able to carry groceries one walking mile.
Access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a key component to good health and well being. Individuals who have access to supermarkets in general tend to have healthier diets and are at lower risk of chronic disease such as diabetes. Researchers have determined that distance to food is also psychological; the physical distance from full service supermarkets leaves residents of these areas to be more likely to purchase food from convenience stores or corner shops that stock mainly cheap, processed foods or foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium; also known as “energy-dense” foods.
A study by Inagami reveals that the distance traveled to food stores is an independent predictor of BMI. According to 2009 reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture there are approximately 11.5 million (4.1% of U.S. Population) low-income people living in areas that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket.
Food deserts are correlated with many poor health outcomes. In a meta-analysis of the literature in 2010, food deserts in a given location were positively correlated with obesity in adults and children, lower household income, and fewer restaurants with healthy food choices. A 2015 study that examined diabetic patients in food insecure neighborhoods found that access to food, ability to be physically active, and the presence of social supports in a neighborhood are directly linked to diabetes outcomes and self-care. Silverman et al. also observed an association between food security and poor glycemic control in individuals with type II diabetes. Their findings suggest that "screening [for food security] may detect patients who are at increased risk for other poor health outcomes".
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in several studies “the proximity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets are correlated with BMI and obesity. But increased consumption of such healthy foods as fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, or whole grains does not necessarily lead to lower BMI.”  The association of health and food access is complex, and the causal relationship is not fully understood. Populations who live in or around areas of food insecurity are often affected by many different but interconnected social determinants of health. In his paper, Posner concludes that “Health status and health behaviors do not often have simple and direct relationships.” 
Research has also found a connection between food access and mental health. In a 2015 study adults in British Columbia who had been diagnosed with a mood disorder were compared to the general population. People with a diagnosed mood disorder were significantly more likely to be food insecure and show signs of protein, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. According to Wang et al., Veterans in a cohort study were found to have significant levels of food insecurity paired with low socioeconomic status, depression and lower control of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.
Upbringing in a food-desert area may have a continuing cultural effect, in which people brought up with a diet low on vegetables or healthier foods will not eat them in adulthood.
Research indicates that low-income households shop where food prices are lower, and generally cannot afford healthful foods. Compared with residents of higher-income neighborhoods, low SES individuals generally have diets higher in meat and processed foods with a low intake of fruits and vegetables. It has been suggested that people of low socioeconomic status ultimately spend up to 37% more on their food purchases, due to smaller weekly food budgets and poorly stocked grocery stores. In addition to higher priced grocery stores, many people living in low income neighborhoods spend more on transportation to bring their groceries home. The Colorado Health Foundation found that taxi cab drivers make more trips to grocery stores at the beginning of the month when food stamps are distributed and at the end of the month before they expire.
Chain supermarkets, which benefit from economies of scale to offer consumers low prices are also less prevalent in urban areas. Chung and Meyers found that only 22% of the chain supermarkets in Minneapolis were located in the inner-city compared to more than half of the non-chain supermarkets. Consumers who shopped at chain supermarkets paid 10-40% less for items compared to the non-chain supermarkets.
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. Report findings from the United States Department of Agriculture “show that when consumers shop at convenience stores, prices paid for similar goods are, on average, higher than at supermarkets”. 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”.
Rural food deserts
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 or overestimate 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. Likewise there may be a large portion of this population with easy access to a vehicle, which regularly drives more than 10 miles to buy food. This is an unfortunate data 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 do so and offer lower prices. Both factors may account for the ability of larger stores to survive more easily than smaller stores.” Small grocers tend to offer less variety and less produce as a result.
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. A study in Iowa showed that four rural food desert counties had lower costs on key foods that make up a nutritionally balanced diet than did the nearby larger supermarkets. This suggests an area in which further research is needed.
Barriers to food access for elderly living in rural food deserts
As of 2007, the elderly made up 7.5 million of the 50 million people living in rural America. The U.S Census website includes maps showing the percentage of residents aged 65 and older. Of these elderly citizens, nearly a half million live in rural food deserts and are food insecure, while many more may be at risk.
There are many barriers to healthful, affordable food for elderly living in rural food deserts. First of all, most elderly live on a fixed income. According to a study of rural seniors living in the Brazos Valley by Sharkey, et al., about 14% of respondents indicated that on a monthly basis household food supplies did not last, 13% could not afford to eat balanced meals, and 8.3% of respondents had to cut the size of their meals or skip meals altogether. 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. Additionally, the death rate from motor vehicle accidents among those ages 75 and older is second only to (and virtually identical with) the highest risk group of those ages 15–25.
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. There is evidence that elderly people living in rural areas suffer from inadequate nutrition intake due to low diet variety. If an elderly individual does not have a reliable source and access to an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, as is the case in rural food deserts, their health is put in jeopardy and sets them up for future ailments.
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 suffering from depression, the desire to go to the store or cook for themselves can be greatly diminished, especially in the case of widows.
Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities
Health disparities related to food access and consumption are associated with residential segregation, low incomes, and neighborhood deprivation.
In a study on urban food environments, participants described the lack of supermarkets as both a “practical impediment to healthful food purchase and a symbol of their neighborhoods’ social and economic struggles". Within cities, there are more than three times as many supermarkets in wealthier neighborhoods compared with poorer areas. In the United States, the number of supermarkets in low income neighborhoods is approximately 30% less than the number of stores in the highest-income neighborhoods. Residents in low-income urban areas are often “forced to depend on small stores with limited selections of foods at substantially higher prices”.
Research has found parallel trends between high rates of obesity and individuals of low SES and non-white ethnicity, particularly in the case of women. Research by Morland et al., found that areas with a majority of convenience stores have a higher prevalence of overweight and obese individuals, compared to areas with only supermarkets. Fast food restaurants are disproportionately placed in low-income and minority neighborhoods, and are often the closest and cheapest food options. "People living in the poorest SES areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas". The lack of adequate food sources and limited transportation available to low-income communities are contributing factors to malnutrition among those living in low SES neighborhoods.
Research has documented inequalities of access to supermarkets in urban city areas, and found a difference in access to supermarkets in poor vs non-poor areas. A study by Baker et al., found that mixed-race areas were significantly less likely to have access to foods that adhere to a healthful diet compared to predominantly white, high income areas. Research by Mari Gallagher has found that African Americans are farther from healthful foods than other racial groups. The availability of supermarkets in African American neighborhoods is 52% of their prevalence in white neighborhoods. Moreover, Morland’s study of food-frequency data in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study revealed that dominantly white populations had five times more supermarkets than neighborhoods with a dominantly non-white population. African Americans who lived in the same census tract with access to a supermarket were more likely to meet dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. For each additional supermarket, an increase of 32% in fruit and vegetable intake was found.
A 2010 study by Michael Correll published by the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy entitled “Getting Fat on Government Cheese: The Connection Between Social Welfare Participation, Gender and Obesity in America", analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assess the health outcomes of women participating in the government Food Stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families programs. The study primarily examines and critiques the structure of current social welfare policies, but it also notes: 1) Many of the participants in the food stamps program live in “food deserts". Some 25% of food stamps participants do not have easy access to a supermarket; and 2) Under welfare-to-work reforms enacted in 1996, an adult recipient must have 30 hours a week of “work activity” to receive these benefits. Because many women are single with children and thus have limited time, this work obligation may limit their ability to travel to find nutritious foods, prepare healthful meals for themselves and their families, and exercise.
Prevalence of obesity is generally higher in rural areas as compared to urban areas. Socioeconomic factors inhibit access to private cars as well as limited reliable public transportation. A 2005 study utilized geographic information systems (GIS) to determine food access in the most impoverished African American and White neighborhoods of Detroit, Michigan. The authors found that African American neighborhoods were an average of 1.1 miles farther from the nearest supermarket than the white neighborhoods, and that 28% of the residents in the most impoverished black neighborhoods did not own a car.
African American communities have the least access to food with in food deserts. “Food access is particularly bad in African-American neighborhoods because of a lack of full-service supermarkets, whether independent or chain. Food access in Hispanic communities is generally better than in African-American neighborhoods due to the presence of independent and small chain supermarkets, but full-service chains are missing. Changes between 2005-2007, in general, have brought more discount stores, but few others, to African-American communities.” Hispanic communities within food deserts have targeted Hispanic food market.
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. “Multilevel, mixed methods studies offer the potential to provide a more complete picture of the direct and perceived environmental influences on healthy behaviors".
A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores”, used 15 years of data on more than 5,000 young adults 18–30 years old in a variety of places around the United States. The study's findings include: 1) Higher levels of fast food consumption were strongly correlated to fast food availability, particularly among low-income men with fast food restaurants within 1.00 to 2.99 km of their homes. A 1% increase in fast food availability within 1 km and 3 km of the home was associated with a 0.13% and 0.34% increase in fast food consumption, respectively; 2) Greater proximity to supermarkets was not correlated in any consistent fashion with diet outcomes, nor was it associated with fruit and vegetable intake levels; 3) There were no consistent or strong correlations between neighborhood fast food availability and individual consumption of fast food for women of any income level; 4) On average, men of all income levels consumed fast food 2.1 times a week, while their female counterparts consumed such food only 1.6 times. The study’s authors conclude that by “promoting greater access to supermarkets, several U.S. policies aim to improve diets through provision of affordable healthful foods, particularly fresh produce in underserved areas. Our findings do not support this initiative in young to middle-aged adults. Rather, they suggest that adding neighborhood supermarkets may have little benefit to diet quality across the income spectrum and that alternative policy options such as targeting specific foods or shifting food costs (subsidization or taxation) should be further considered.”
A 2009 study of rural food deserts found a number of key differences in overall health, access to food, and the social environment when compared with urban environments. In terms of health, rural residents report overall poorer health and more physical limitations, with 12% of them rating their health as fair or poor, compared to 9% of urban residents Communities that are smaller and isolated from urban influences have decreased access to the broader global market and consequently have fewer choices in food retailers. Lack of competition in the community not only restricts access to food resources, but can also result in higher food costs. Respondents in this study felt that food quality and variety in their area were poor at times. The authors also found that although personal factors impact eating behavior for rural people, it is the physical and social environments that place constraints on food access, even in civically engaged communities.
But the study of food deserts requires further research, including longitudinal studies of food environments, to support associations with obesity and to support neighborhood interventions. Longitudinal studies “permit temporal associations” between exposure to nutritious food and obesity. They also provide historical data on grocery store location, nutritional environments, and data associated with life-course exposure to food.
Future research is required to overcome the barriers facing residents of food deserts, including retail trends and location of supermarkets, in order that food retailers and city planners may develop multilevel interventions to address barriers to health at the individual and environmental level. Studies that examine geographic differences in the access and availability of food, as well as nutritional quality of food, provide information for public health to explain disparities.
Other recent studies have shown some correlations between food availability and health, including a 2010 study that correlated distance from supermarkets with increases in body mass index. Among elderly people in particular, malnutrition caused by inadequate access to food can lead to other health risks. For those suffering from weight loss and undernutrition, risks include increased and longer hospitalizations, early admission to long term care facilities, and overall increased morbidity and mortality. Nutritional disorders with co-morbidities are the ninth most frequent diagnostic category among hospitalized rural elderly Medicare beneficiaries. Elderly adults struggling with obesity and overnutrition related to limited food choices are at risk of exacerbating existing chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and increased functional decline.
Food desert issues by country
Food deserts can be found in many counties around the world, even more wealthy countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia.
The research available on food deserts worldwide is not as richly documented as it is in United States. “Food deserts exist, at least in the United States. Evidence is both abundant and robust enough for us to conclude that Americans living in low income and minority areas tend to have poor access to healthy food. However, Studies on the price of food were generally of low-quality, and their findings were mixed. Evidence from other countries is sparse and equivocal. The evidence that is available is much less compelling than evidence from the United States. On this basis, evidence from other countries does not warrant firm conclusions at this time on whether access to healthy, affordable food systematically varies to disadvantaged so socioeconomically deprived ares.” Beaulac, Julie, Elizabeth Kristjansson PhD, and Steven Cummins PhD. This publication concluded that there is just not enough documented information to support that this is a worldwide problem, not saying that it is not a problem, but there is not enough concrete information to base a claim.
British food deserts can be broadly classified into twelve geographical types, based on the interaction of socioeconomic factors of physical access to shops, financial access (affordability of) healthy food, and attitudes towards consumption of healthy food, the desire to consume it rather than fast / convenience food, possession of cooking skills, that is, psychological access. These twelve neighbourhood types are 1) inner city executive flat areas (too fast lifestyle to cook healthily), 2) inner city ethnic minority areas (cost of food vs low wages), 3) inner city deprived areas severed by main roads from retail areas (poor physical access), 4) declining suburban areas (shops closing, poor physical access to supermarkets), 5) planned local authority housing areas (low income, and shops often lack fresh produce), 6) student residence areas (preference for fast food outlets, little demand for fresh produce), 7) Wealthy suburban areas, most shop by car, but some less mobile pensioners with no car. Areas 8 - 12 are rural food deserts. 8) is small market town centres losing trade to out-of-town supermarkets, leaving the car-less without easy access, 9) market town suburbs, poor bus service to centre perhaps 1 or 2 miles (2 - 3 kilometres) distant, 10), smaller rural towns, lack full range of fresh produce, 11) remoter villages, no shop, and under-served by mobile shops, 12) dispersed settlements, no focal point for shop 
Furey et al. describes food desert creation as arising where “high competition from large chain supermarkets has created a void”.
“In Melbourne, households with lower individual socio-economic position and area disadvantages have restricted access to food because of lack of money and /or having physical limitations due difficulty lifting or lack of access to a car for food shopping.” Households where the head of the house was not born in Australia had less access to food, reduced access to transportation or finances. 
In Western Australia, a private/public partnership between government and non-governmental entities set out to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in children. The partnership developed policies to improve school lunch nutrition, restrict food advertising targeting children, and support mass media efforts which promote fruit and vegetable consumption. 2 years after implementing these policies Western Australian schools increased their sale of healthy foods.
“European (non-UK) food access research also frequently highlights the problem of poverty in relation to accessing a healthy diet.” French researches have noted that lower income consumers have a tendency to reach for more affordable items such as high caloric foods, (i.e. cereals, sweets, and added fats) instead of nutrient rich single source foods.
Maps, showing the distribution of food deserts in the United States can be found in Morton and Blanchard's 2007 article.
Despite differences in terminology, most research in the United States supports the hypothesis that on the neighborhood level, there are disparities in the retail food environment.
In the interest of profitability, larger supermarkets have followed this trend and are most prevalent in these white suburban neighborhoods.
According to a report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assessing the extent of limited access to affordable, nutritious food, approximately 2.4 million households in the United States are more than a mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.
Barriers and proposed solutions
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".
Audit 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 Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). 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.
One community intervention that increases food access is the community garden. Community gardens enable individuals to grow their own food on a designated area of land that is shared with other community members. Community garden programs increased access to affordable, nutritious food in rural, suburban and urban areas. They also help strengthen community and social support for participants.
The USDA released an extensive report to Congress in 2009 as a request to reform the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. The study outlines a list of recommendations for addressing access issues in food deserts that include the above options, but also includes transportation reform as a solution. Transportation is a significant barrier in rural food deserts (rural realities). Evaluating current transportation in these communities and developing community-specific solutions can target populations limited by current transportation options (rural realities). According to Morton and Blanchard, there is a need to address the added complications of individuals living in these isolated communities. Proposed solutions include utilizing a combination of public and private resources. Current transit assistance and meal-provisioning programs that are already established in many communities, such Meals on Wheels, have initiatives that focus on providing food residents with limited mobility and ability to shop at traditional food retailers.
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. The initiative receives funding from the Treasury Department, Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services.
Several states and cities within the United States are also implementing comprehensive programs that involve public-private partnership and a combination of financing initiatives and community-level interventions. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Intitative, for example is a public-private partnership aimed at encouraging the development of new supermarkets by providing grants of up to $250,000 or loans of up to $2.5 million per store to defray the infrastructure costs of developing a new store. So far, $41.8 million in grants and loans have funded 58 stores.
The New York City FRESH program (Food Retail Expansion Health) is one of the most comprehensive attempts to increase access to full-service grocery stores in underserved areas. They offer an abatement of land or building taxes for a period of 25 years and a sales tax exemption on building materials.
Community-level interventions are useful in that they are less expensive and easier to implement than programs that encourage the creation of new stores. They require less space, promote local farmers and increase community and social capital.
Citizens of a rural community in North Carolina collaborated to develop and implement a solution to the problem of access to food in Bertie County, the poorest in the state. Community members, in conjunction with a class at the public high school, designed and constructed a pavilion to serve as the home for a local farmers’ market. This is one example of committed civic engagement, which can be a strong determinant in the successful development of community-specific solutions and improved access to food. Community involvement and the incorporation of local organizations and volunteerism can improve the effectiveness of food safety nets and alternative solutions such as community gardens.
Universities have coordinated with local business and community leaders to solve food scarcity issues. In 2008, La Salle University and The Fresh Grocer teamed up to open a grocery store in Germantown, Philadelphia. The Germantown neighborhood was plagued with a decades-long food desert, but thanks to a coordination between two enterprises, the Fresh Grocer was able to provide more than 250 jobs to Philadelphians and provide healthy food. College students have also started their own community gardens to assist the underprivileged members of their neighborhood.
Farmers markets can be costly for low-income individuals living in these communities. The City of New York has implemented several community-level initiatives such as increasing the number farmers markets in underserved areas and increasing their use by residents through the Health Bucks program. This program offers $2 coupons purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets. This program was intended to reduce barriers to access based on affordability. Through this program, EBT sales at farmers’ markets more than doubled from $40,000 in 2007 to over $89,000 in 2008. The program is being expanded into upstate New York as the Fresh Bucks program.
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.
In response to the lack of healthy food access, the Westwood community in Denver, CO partnered with the non-profit Re:Vision to create a system of community gardens in 2010. As of 2015, they have plans to expand the initiative and open a food cooperative in the neighborhood.
In addition to government and community programs, families have been known to work together and pool their resources in order to survive. It is not uncommon for families to develop a "network" of sharing, bartering their goods and services. They exchange clothing, provide childcare, sell personal possessions, share transportation resources and in extreme cases share housing. People living in food deserts see this as survival techniques, they are creating ways to feed their families.
Beyond physical access
A pilot study conducted by Cummins et al. has shown that access to food options is not the only barrier to healthier diets and improved health outcomes. Their study focused on a community that had been funded by the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. They conducted follow up after a grocery store was built in a food desert to assess the impact. They found that “simply building new food retail stores may not be sufficient to promote behavior change related to diet.” Pearson et al. have also found that physical access is not the sole determinant of fruit and vegetable consumption and urge food policy to focus on the social and cultural barriers to healthy eating.
Wrigley et al. collected data before and after a food desert intervention to explore factors affecting supermarket choice and perceptions regarding healthy diet, in Leeds, United Kingdom. Pre-tests were administered prior to a new store opening and post-tests were delivered 2 years after the new store had opened. The results showed that nearly half of the food desert residents began shopping at the newly built store, however, only modest improvements in diet were recorded. Other studies have documented a sense of loyalty towards the owners of neighborhood convenience stores as an explanation as to why residents may not change their shopping behaviors.
It is important to note, this demographic is mostly nonstandard workers. “Nonstandard work arrangements are nonstandard schedules such as work hours that fall outside “typical business hours (i.e. the nine-to-five day), including rotating shifts and night or evening shifts.” In this situation it makes it harder for people working these hours to make it to a traditional grocery store, especially smaller stores that typically close earlier. Therefore, it illustrates how this problem continues to evolve. It inevitably sends this demographic in search of other alternatives such as fast food or convenience stores, that are generally open later.
There are safety concerns for residents of food deserts. Many food deserts are in high crime area, with bulletproof glass or bars on the windows, not a comfortable shopping environment. “For example, residents mentioned the environment inside store, poor upkeep and customer service, as well as issues outside the store such as community violence and proximity to liquor stores.” The neighborhoods have higher rates of community violence, with most having a lack of transportation. These residents will also have to walk these streets caring their food or taking a bus, and maybe also being responsible for a child or children.
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