Food deserts are defined as areas with limited to no access to affordable nutritious food like fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. Accessibility and proximity to grocery stores and farmers’ markets play just one role in defining a food desert. Socioeconomic status, income, and resources such as transportation accessibility factor into defining areas as food deserts. For instance, reliance on the means and systems of public transportation can play a role in limiting access to sources of nutritious food. Looking at just proximity food deserts are located in urban area communities that are more than one mile away from a supermarket or grocery store. For rural communities, food deserts are located where the community is at least ten miles away from the nearest supermarket or grocery store. Typically, food deserts are more likely to house individuals of low socioeconomic status, with higher unemployment rates being apparent in food deserts.
So why are we talking about them? Food deserts exist everywhere in the country, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the food access inequalities in the country. For those that do not have access to a personal car, the limited access and closures of public transportation systems as a result of COVID-19 has made the food access situation even worse. Washington, D.C. is the perfect example of the unequal food access distribution and food deserts. 11% of D.C.’s total square mileage is composed of food deserts, with more than 75% of those food deserts located in Wards 7 and 8. Those in Wards 7 and 8 will end up facing more health challenges as a result of their food access and the food shortages created by COVID-19. It is in this time of crisis that we must ask ourselves what we can do to help.
A recent webinar with the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, can be used as a potential guide for how we can combat food shortages and food deserts. In the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Stephen Ritz has focused on limiting food shortages of school-attending children by creating community gardens for schools to have access to. In his studies, Stephen Ritz has found a 44% increase in fresh food consumption with school access to a garden. While this has had obvious success, we can do more to combat and end food deserts. It is important to think innovatively and creatively to create access to areas of food deserts.
What could companies like Uber and Lyft potentially do with car services? How about Amazon, who works with Whole Foods to deliver groceries?
Cost is an obvious issue, so federal policies and private sector/non-profits are going to have to work together to help with cost inequalities found in society.
But let’s think, and let’s think creatively, so we can fight food deserts and give everyone access to healthy food.