Why It Takes More Than a Whole Foods to Fix a Food Desert

Over the past six years, the Obama Administration has drawn government attention and funding toward the problem of America’s food deserts. The US Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a district or neighborhood where at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, live more than one mile from a supermarket in an urban area, or more than 10 miles from a market in a rural area. Michelle Obama, as part of her Let’s Move Campaign to end childhood obesity, vowed in 2010 to eradicate food deserts within seven years. Her solution entailed funding to bring grocery stores to areas without access to fresh fruits and vegetables. However, just because more healthy foods are supplied does not mean that the people living in food deserts will have the funds to demand them. The simple solution of populating inner city and rural areas with new supermarkets overlooks the underlying poverty and food system inequalities that create food deserts in the first place.

The USDA estimates that about 23.5 million people live in food deserts, which are present in both rural and urban areas across the country. The majority of “red zone” areas, where the closest supermarket is over 20 miles away, are concentrated west of the Mississippi, due to lower population density. In fact, you can drive from east to west across two thirds of southern Oregon without entering a county where two grocery stores are located within 20 miles of each other. Similarly, nearly all neighborhoods in Alaska are one to ten miles to the nearest grocery store.

Food deserts also exist in more populated areas. The definition of a food desert does not only include lack of food retailers; it also refers to the scarcity of healthy food options. Therefore, suburban areas with more fast food chains than healthy markets, sometimes called “food swamps,” could paradoxically also be classified as food deserts. Inner-city neighborhoods without a supermarket within a mile also qualify. The majority of Providence, Rhode Island, is a food desert — at least one-third of its residents live a mile from the closest Whole Foods or Eastside Marketplace, or have inadequate car access to reach these locations.

The need to eliminate food deserts stems from two concerns: food insecurity and obesity. The USDA estimates that in 2014, 14 percent of American households were food insecure at some point during the year, meaning that they lacked enough food to lead healthy, sustainable lifestyles. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, attempts to fight food insecurity by giving low-income families EBT cards to purchase food. However the nearest place to buy groceries in a food desert is often a convenience store, not a well-stocked supermarket. On average, both urban and rural low-income areas have 25 percent fewer grocery stores, and more than twice as many mini marts as higher income neighborhoods. Since convenience stores are smaller, they present customers with fewer options, and most likely do not have the resources to stock and refrigerate large quantities of fresh produce. Studies  have found that proximity to supermarkets corresponds with lower body mass index (BMI), the score used to measure obesity.

Just because more healthy foods are supplied does not mean that the people living in food deserts will have the means to demand them.

The linkage between food deserts and unhealthy consumption prompted the Obama Administration to sign the 2010 Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HHFI) under the umbrella of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. The Act appropriates $400 million to both bring grocery stores to food deserts and equip existing food retailers with healthy options. Many states have taken up the HHFI’s goals; Maryland’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative is a competitive grant program where deserving retailers can receive funding to either establish a market or enhance their offerings, especially by adding local goods. Pennsylvania offers a similar program.

This supply-side solution of building supermarkets does not fix the underlying social ills that cause food deserts. The HHFI assumes that certain demographics are unhealthy because of the environments they live in — long commutes in rural areas, few parks or recreational outlets in urban ones, and, of course, no supermarkets in either. But does proximity to supermarkets correspond with low BMI because access to its foods diminishes obesity? Or, on the contrary, do people with higher incomes demand supermarkets in their neighborhoods? Food writer Julie Guthman argues that if the latter is the case, then a new grocery store in a low-income neighborhood could actually lead to gentrification, and therefore have adverse effects on the population it was seeking to help.

Low transportation access and food deserts are both indicators of the underlying issue of poverty. Therefore, increasing the number of grocery stores would only help neighborhoods with pre-existing transportation access. Most rural communities do not have the population density to justify the creation of a public transportation system, and 1.6 million rural households do not have access to a car.

But members of both urban and rural low-income communities face a larger problem: they are often unable to afford the fruits and vegetables, organic goods, or multigrain breads that the HHFI is pushing. The documentary Food Inc, depicts a low-income Latin American immigrant family who must decide between spending all of their wages at the grocery store, or splitting them between a drive-through meal and paying for the father’s medication. Either choice would entail a health sacrifice, and fast food seems the less immediate of two evils.

For the most part, fast food is not cheap because of agriculture subsidies that lower the costs of the grain that feeds beef cattle or is turned into hamburger buns. 31 cents of every dollar spent on food in the US goes toward food service costs. This includes the wages of line-order cooks and waiters, many of whom earn minimum wages that restrict their food budget to unhealthy options. Therefore, as Guthman argues, low minimum wages have allowed cheap fast food to create its own market.

In large part, policies that aim to reduce poverty will also reduce the number of food deserts. But fixing poverty is an incredibly difficult task. One possible approach entails raising the minimum wage, but this is complicated and politically divisive. In the meantime, a temporary yet perhaps more feasible solution, is to incentivize SNAP recipients to spend their food stamp dollars in healthy ways. Instead of manipulating the supply of produce, create more demand for it. The most recent Farm Bill included a provision to increase appropriations for SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets. Many farmers markets across the country redeem EBT dollars for double bucks, meaning that every $1 on the EBT card is worth $2 at the farm stand.

Double bucks programs allow for impoverished Americans to lessen their food-insecurity and fill their diets with healthy produce and local goods. However, the program is far from a comprehensive solution to food deserts. It merely helps those already receiving SNAP benefits and does not reduce the number of impoverished American families, but it is a start. The first step in eradicating food deserts is changing the way we talk about them. We need to move beyond the idea of a supermarket as an all-powerful oasis, and focus on how we can expand the financial resources for the many the oasis will not reach.