What is a “Food Desert?”
A food desert is an area where getting fresh, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are especially difficult. They can be found in urban and rural areas and often include communities of color with low income. Food deserts are areas where access to grocery stores that sell fresh produce is difficult because of distance or lack of public transportation. According to a report from the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, approximately 2.3 million people live more than 1 mile away from a supermarket and does not own a car.3
For the many Americans living within or near a food desert, the lack of access to healthy foods can have negative health consequences. In a study by PolicyLink and The Food Trust that combined data from several sources, including the CDC, they found that decreased access to healthy food is related to many diet-related diseases including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.5
Factors that Contribute to Food Deserts
Distance: In communities, healthy food isn’t easily accessible because grocery stores are 10 and sometimes 20 miles away, food is often purchased from fast food restaurants or convenience stores where many items are highly processed and have lower nutritional value. 7
Transportation: In some cases, healthy food may be technically available but not accessible. There may be a grocery store nearby but without public transportation or a car, 5 miles isn’t much different than 20 miles. Even if a grocery store is only a mile away, it can still be inaccessible if there are no sidewalks, if neighborhood crime is a concern, or if a disability prevents someone from walking that distance.7
Affordability: It isn’t only the cost of an item that determines affordability but the “price of a particular food and the relative price of alternative or substitute foods. Affordability of food is also impacted by the budget constraints faced by consumers, who must consider not only the prices of different foods to meet their food needs but also the prices of other necessities.”4 If there are only a few dollars left after paying for rent, utilities, and transportation to work, the pennies saved from buying fruit snacks instead of fruit (or a hamburger instead of a salad) become a lot more valuable.
Although many rural communities are agriculture based, residents of those communities may still live in a food desert due to a lack of supermarkets that sell fresh produce.
Race and Income: The NRC’s analysis found that race and income levels are significantly related to food deserts. In the study, Hispanic populations had one-third less access to chain supermarkets than non-Hispanic populations, and lower-income neighborhoods overall had less access than middle- and upper-income neighborhoods.7
Addressing Food Deserts
Lower income, non-white communities often experience higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which is why it is important we understand how we can help address the issue. Many innovative solutions have been suggested to address food deserts and the negative health outcomes associated with them. These initiatives include mobile food markets, bus-stop farmer’s markets, non-profit grocery stores, community gardens and public-private partnerships intended to bring more grocery stores to town. Some would argue, however, that increased availability isn’t enough. Trading in easy to access, inexpensive, delicious food for healthier options may require some convincing. Education about the components of a healthy diet and the reasons why spending the extra time and money to eat healthier is worth it may be required to see long-term change in community health.
Community Health Workers (CHWs), who are often members of the communities they serve, act as trusted liaisons between community members and health care systems. They are great at working with hard to reach communities because they speak the language and understand cultural norms.6 CHWs are also comfortable meeting people where they’re at, whether that be a community center, school or someone’s living room. They could be key in linking availability to access by educating and motivating their communities to access healthier foods as they become increasingly available.
Several of MHP Salud’s Community Health Worker Programs emphasize the importance of a healthy diet.
MHP Salud’s program, Juntos Podemos utilizes Community Health Workers to promote the adoption of healthy lifestyles in order to maintain healthy weight among families in the Rio Grande Valley. Implementing culturally and linguistically appropriate education, the program promotes healthy nutrition and living active lifestyles. Last year, parents and their children who participated in Juntos Podemos significantly increased their fruit and vegetable consumption. This was due in part to the education they received from a CHW on the importance of the little everyday ideas they can adopt like choosing fruits over candies when rewarding children. We also saw increases in the amount of time families were spending on exercise. Some families so motivated by the program, they would organize activities to stay active with neighbors well after the sessions ended. This is proof of the powerful influence Community Health Workers can have on communities and sheds light on the implications that Community Health Workers are a great option when it comes to addressing food deserts.
About MHP Salud
MHP Salud has over thirty years of experience implementing CHW programs and training organizations looking to start and/or strengthen their own CHW programs. For more information about MHP Salud, our services, and how we can help you, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org