September 29, 2009
This is the first of a two post series highlighting the critical issue of Food Deserts and how communities can work together to address their needs, as part of the Center for a Livable Future’s focus on National Food Desert Awareness Month.
In just this last week, newspapers around the country have lamented the lack of good food availability in rural areas such as Oklahoma and in the large urban cores of Chicago, and Los Angeles. Health reform dominates the headlines as advocates, policymakers, and community members focus attention on how to make Americans healthier. Diet plays a key role, but it is difficult to maintain a healthy diet without access to healthy foods.
But what does access really mean? In public health, access can be defined by a variety of mechanisms: information, location, and cost.
First, we need information as the key step toward knowledge and action. That’s why, for a long time in public health, we focused on the mantra “eat five a day!” to reinforce the importance of fruits and vegetables. Today the Surgeon General says more is better. But are these healthy foods actually available in all of our communities and, if not, is it disingenuous to preach about personal responsibility?
This brings us to our second piece of the access puzzle: location. Local land use decisions are, in many respects, public health decisions. And while one plot of land or one particular retailer does not directly cause universal life or death, happiness or despair, community revitalization or decline – they certainly can influence those outcomes.
As far back as 1926, the United States Supreme Court rendered an opinion that government has a responsibility to promote and protect public health, and that government can therefore control land use to that end, which typically happens through zoning laws. Health officials focusing on better personal choices need to consider first whether the built environment offers those choices. “Just say no” to fast, cheap food seems like cruel advice to low-income communities with few or no alternatives.
The third consideration is cost barriers. Once we succeed in providing information in the right locations can everyone afford these healthier foods over their cheaper imitation food rivals? As we struggle to deal with cost, let’s remember that repackaged, highly processed imitation food high in salt, fat and sugar and low in nutritional value has its own hidden price tag.
It’s convenient. It’s cheap. And sometimes it’s tasty and filling. But if this is the food we turn to on a regular basis, over the long run, it makes us sick.
In addition to those who suffer first-hand, these costs will be borne indirectly by the heath care industry, by employers, by government agencies, and by others who take on the financial burden of pre-death treatments.
It’s no small number of people affected by these conditions. In Chicago, we found that over 600,000 residents are more likely to suffer and die prematurely due to living in a food desert after controlling for income, race, and education. We also found that many USDA “Food Stamp” retailers – the “first line of defense against malnutrition” in the United States – are actually liquor stores with very little real food.
This is the case, too, in many other parts of the country. In Detroit, we found that 92% of USDA “Food Stamp” retailers are what we call fringe; only 8% are small, medium or large grocery stores or supermarkets. In the former Motor City, it’s not fast food enabling people to get sicker, it’s our government. During recent fieldwork in Georgia, I was shocked that one of these “government food stores” included video poker machines with stools and people sitting on them playing and smoking. To view these and other reports, check out our site.
Many of these USDA-endorsed outlets do not comply with federal guidelines or common sense about what people need to maintain healthy diets. Liquor stores aren’t necessarily bad, but if acting as a primary food source for a community, local diets, public health, and land use patterns likely suffer. A liquor store is no place to acquire fresh, healthy food for a healthy diet.
The National Center for Public Research created Food Desert Awareness Month to raise awareness about access issues and to showcase community solutions.
September ends, but food deserts and poor health conditions remain. Take action: visit www.fooddesertmonth.org, follow us on Twitter here, or get involved with local projects like the Healthy Corner Store project in Baltimore. Talk to your neighbors and local officials.
This past Saturday, at a rally sponsored by W.O.R.K.S. Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge, and Services (W.O.R.K.S.) in Los Angeles, First District Councilmember El Reyes told me, “We can’t have a decent future if we don’t have decent food.” Amen. W.O.R.K.S. is responding by teaching its low-income housing residents how to grow and cook organically. Those of us who don’t live in sunny California’s long growing season might need to look for additional options during the cold, winter months. But since it’s so important, let’s all figure it out, with options like the Healthy Store project in Baltimore.
Knowing that food imbalance steals life and vitality from communities and their residents is a call to action for improved access to healthy foods. As we all need to eat to live, food might be the unifying thread that transcends race, place, class, and outdated development models that just don’t work in underserved communities.
Identifying market as well as needs-based solutions that promote access to nutritious foods and healthy food choices will require input and support from the food desert residents themselves as well as from grocers, banks, brokers, developers, planners, health officials, community advocates, activists, educators, government, foundations – ultimately everyone – to achieve even a modest level of success.
Mari Gallagher is principal of Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, and is the author of “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” a breakthrough study which popularized the term “food desert” across the country.