What is a “Food Desert?”
Lack of Access to Fresh Food is Keeping Millions of Americans in Poor Health
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, or so they say. But, what if there aren’t any apples? For millions of Americans living in food deserts, limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a daily reality. A food desert can be characterized in many ways, but is essentially an area where getting fresh, healthy food is especially difficult. The Center for Disease Control describes food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
This lack of access could be a result of many factors. For some communities, healthy food isn’t available. There may not be a grocery store within 10 or 20 miles and food is often purchased from fast food restaurants or convenience stores where many items are highly processed and have lower nutritional value than fresh produce. 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 a grocery store a mile away can be inaccessible if there are no sidewalks, if neighborhood crime is a concern, or if a disability prevents someone from walking that distance. Affordability can also create barriers to food access. According to a report on food access by the US Department of Agriculture, 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.” 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.
According to the National Resource Council food deserts can be found in urban and rural areas alike, but there are some demographic characteristics that are likely to be present. 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.
This association of food deserts to race and income was reinforced in a study by PolicyLink and The Food Trust that combined data from several sources, including the CDC. This study also connected the lack of access to healthy food to negative health outcomes. They found that decreased access to healthy food is related to many diet-related diseases including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease and that lower-income, non-white communities often experience higher rates of these chronic diseases.
Several of MHP Salud’s Community Health Worker Programs emphasize the importance of a healthy diet.
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, who are often members of the communities they serve, could be key in linking availability to access by educating and motivating their communities to access healthier foods as they become increasingly available.
MHP Salud’s Juntos Podemos program 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 a healthy nutrition, active lifestyles and a reduction in screen time. Thus far, over 50% of the adult participants in Juntos Podemos have successfully increased their fruit and veggie intake – powerful statement on the impact that Community Health Workers can have on communities.
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