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Food Deserts

Food Deserts

Food Deserts in Baltimore (in purple)

You don’t really think of America as a place where people are malnourished. Images from the media and reports from the CDC continue to show the U.S. at the center of an obesity epidemic, but through vast stretches of our cities there’s a lack of affordable, healthy food available. Corner stores are filled with junk or 10 day old bananas at a huge markup, while in many lower-income neighborhoods, the nearest full service grocery store can be more than a mile away.  For people without access to a car, a mile is far even by bus, and doubly so when they have to carry grocery bags back home.

With rising poverty rates and once affluent and stable middle-class suburban neighborhoods showing signs of decline,  a growing number of families are looking for less expensive food in places where healthy food is not easily available without auto access.  When transportation costs and time are factored in, this means picking up a microwave pizza is far easier and less expensive than traveling across town for a salad.

In identifying the problem, the USDA has started a Food Environment Atlas which has food price and availability data at the county level.  In Baltimore,  The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University is trying to bridge this food access gap. Their first task is mapping and understanding the problem.  Some preliminary analysis can be found here. Predictably, there are vast food deserts in East and West Baltimore.

It’s not only a Baltimore issue, but a broader problem of spatial inequality in urban centers. A good case study is London.  A 2008 Journal of Health Geographics describes the trend toward decreasing food availability in inner city neighborhoods:

The research team reported that low-income residents of London’s inner-city neighborhoods had poorer access to supermarkets than middle- and high-income residents. Moreover, spatial inequalities in access to supermarkets had increased over time. In 1961, more than 75% of London’s inner-city population lived within 1 kilometer of a supermarket, giving them easy access to a variety of foods, says principal investigator Jason Gilliland, who directs the university’s Urban Development Program. In 2005, he says, that number was less than 20%.

So does access to healthy food mean that people will eat healthier? The other side of the argument is that even with nearby grocery stores and farmer’s markets, consumers will still by the same junk. From the Economist:

No surprise, then, that neither USDA nor the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has been able to establish a causal link between food deserts and dietary health. In fact, both agree that merely improving access to healthy food does not change consumer behaviour.

This sorta bursts my bubble. Consumer behavior and microeconomics opens up a can of worms, so let’s keep it simple and assume that if healthy food is more available, families will eat healthier, at least marginally.  So once the problem is identified and mapped, how do we bridge the geographical gap between places that offer healthy food and the neighborhoods furthest away from them?  There are two obvious solutions; moving the people to the food (without relying on cars), or moving the food to the people.

While transit, bicycle infrastructure, and “food shuttles” can expand access to food for those who can not or choose not to drive, because of the logistics involved (carrying bags and longer trip times), I believe transportation has less of an impact on access than proximity to vendors. This means bringing the food to the people. In Baltimore, a growing number of farmers markets are filling in the gaps, while the Virtual Supermarket Program is bringing healthy food to neighborhood libraries. In DC, programs like DC’s Central Kitchen’s “Healthy Corners Program” stocks fresh fruits and vegetables at neighborhood corner stores.

While marketing and education can also influence eating habits, the experience of seeing a fruit stand where there wasn’t one before can introduce entirely new options for communities who have seen nothing but Twinkies and frozen burritos for far too long.

Improving Food Access in Baltimore from Baltimore Office of Sustainabili on Vimeo.

Healthy Corners from DC Central Kitchen on Vimeo.