May 24, 2010
Lawyer Andy Weisbecker recently posted an opinion piece in Food Safety News in which he discusses the problem of limited access to healthy food and its contribution to the burden of obesity and diet-related disease.
The term “food desert” refers to a location-generally, a low-income neighborhood-from which residents must travel twice as far as those living in wealthier neighborhoods to reach the nearest supermarket.
As Weisbecker points out, awareness is growing that people who live in food deserts face “significant obstacles to the purchase and consumption of affordable healthy food.” It is often easier for these people to purchase meals from fast food establishments and corner stores than it is for them to shop at supermarkets or large grocery stores.
While the negative health effects of fast food are generally well understood, the obstacles created by small local grocery or convenience stores are perhaps less intuitive. These establishments often lack a selection of nutritious food and are more expensive than supermarkets and large grocery stores. Even when they do offer healthier options such as fruit, vegetables and milk, these items are often of lower quality than their counterparts in large grocery stores: a study conducted in Philadelphia found higher microbial indicator counts in these items in low-income markets than in comparable items in higher-income area markets.
Results of a year-long study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture in 2008 linked distance between dwelling and supermarket, along with poor transportation, with limited access to affordable nutritious food. According to this study, food access-related problems affect almost 6 percent of all households in the United States. This translates to an estimated 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, who live in low-income neighborhoods more than a mile from a supermarket.
For many, the phrase “food safety” conjures news stories of Salmonella outbreaks and E. coli 0157:H7. Though Weisbecker touches on the microbial quality of perishable produce items available in convenience stores, this piece indicates a growing awareness that food safety involves entire food systems rather than disjointed parts. Instead of keeping abreast of which microbe is in the spinach or the peanut butter this week, we must contemplate the bigger picture of food safety-including access to healthy foods. As Mark Winne writes in Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, “An investment in bringing high-quality retail food outlets, which can include public markets and farmers markets, to the country’s underserved rural and urban communities should be our highest economic development priority. Not only will it pay off in new property taxes and jobs for those communities, but it will lower the nation’s health bill as well.”