Food Deserts: A Pandemic of Their Own

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What Are Food Deserts? 

Food deserts are areas of high food insecurity. According to the USDA, food insecurity is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” (“What is Food Insecurity in America?”).  Food insecurity happens almost always in companion with other issues such as lack of affordable housing, social isolation, health problems, medical costs, or low wages. A lack of nutritious food affects almost all aspects of a person’s life: their mental health, their relationships, and especially their physical well-being and susceptibility to disease (“What is Food Insecurity in America?”). 

I became interested in food deserts after my school club, Interact, organized a local community service project focused on bagging fresh food for a neighborhood that didn’t have a grocery store. I am from Savannah, GA. In our city, there is an entire area that is four miles away from the nearest grocery store. however, in the same area, there are seven liquor/convenience stores, selling processed, unhealthy options at high prices. 25% of children in this area and 20% of adults do not have healthy options to eat. At our event, we bagged hundreds of bags packed with raw chicken, fresh vegetables, and canned goods. It was uplifting to see people’s smiles when we gave them a bag. Afterward, it made me wonder why these places existed, and how common they were, and what more could be done to help.

The Stats

Food insecurity is more common than one would think. It affects nearly a billion people worldwide. About 12.8% of Americans lived in low-income or low-access areas in 2015. Low access is defined as, in urban areas, living more than a mile from the nearest grocery store and in rural areas, living more than ten miles from the nearest grocery store. Low-income areas are defined as having a poverty rate of 20% or more and having an average family income less than or equal to 80% of the statewide median family income (Meyerson). Food insecurity isn’t just an empty pantry. The term “food insecure” includes anyone who has had to choose between paying for groceries and their medical bills, or “children eating Spaghetti-Os or Eggos, college students living off instant noodles, and an elderly couple surviving off of microwave meals” (“What is Food Insecurity and How Does It Impact Kids”).

Food Insecurity During COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused nationwide lockdowns, and generated fear in millions, only worsened the issue. Grocery stores and public transport cut back hours and limited their capacities. This, in addition to the fear of the virus, makes it especially difficult for people to make it to the grocery store. This disproportionately affects those who have preexisting health conditions, the elderly, and those who are low income. These people are more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 and they may not be able to pay for their medical expenses. Food prices have risen by about 2.6%: eggs by 16.1%, meat by 3.3%, and fruits and vegetables by 1.5%. This creates more difficulty in buying healthy food for those who can already barely afford it. In 2016, 38 million people in the US relied on food stamps to pay for their groceries. Online grocery purchase is not available to them in many states and online grocery delivery is often only available at an extra fee. If they don’t own a method of transportation, it can become extremely difficult and scary to pick up their groceries during a pandemic. Food insecurity, a previously difficult issue, has only been magnified (Meyerson). 

Food Insecurity In Children

Food insecurity is, unfortunately, common in children as well as adults. This doesn’t just mean they don’t get enough fruits and vegetables – a lifetime of eating nutritionally void food will affect every aspect of their bringing up. It puts them in worse health and prevents them from meeting their full potential. Their growth may be limited and they may have a harder time learning. Instead of focusing on studying, they are thinking about their hunger or if they will get dinner or not. 15.7% of households with children are food insecure. In about half those households, adults give up their own access to healthy food so that their children could eat healthily. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely increased the number of children food insecure, as families face financial instability and uncertainty, and most children are no longer receiving school meals. Children thrive the most when they can eat a healthy diet (“What is Food Insecurity and How Do It Impacts Kids”). 

Racial Disparities in Food Insecurity

Although anyone can experience food insecurity, Black Americans experience it at a much higher rate. This is because of the withstanding legacy of slavery. The average income for Black families is significantly lower than that of white families, about $40,258 compared to $68,145. A lower income means that families can’t afford as much food, especially expensive, fresh food. Racist laws and policies since the times of slavery that made land ownership extremely difficult for Black Americans still have their effects today. The quality of a person’s education greatly affects their future income, and Black children often receive lower-quality education due to past segregation laws causing Black families to live near poorly funded schools. All these disparities lead to a. big difference in food insecurity across races (“Hunger Is a Racial Equity Issue”). 

What Is Being Done to Help?

In my community, my school, through the Interact club, has volunteered alongside local organizations fighting hunger and food insecurity such as Savannah Feed the Hungry, run by Carl Gilliard, whom I briefly interviewed. In Savannah, garden growing has been promoted as a way to get extremely fresh produce at a cheap price. People can attend cooking/nutrition classes to learn how to cook certain foods as a healthy alternative to processed or fast foods. Savannah Feed the Hungry has helped unemployed people become employed, organized food drives, helped people receive education, and helped people go from renting to owning their properties (Schulze). On a national level, many schools, are making and distributing meals to kids during quarantine, and some urban farmers and chefs have even started cooking meals for neighborhoods in need. Baltimore increased resident participation in food stamps and delivered shelf-stable groceries and produce to people’s homes (Meyerson). 

 

Legislation 

In recent years, there has been legislation to decrease food insecurity across the country. For example, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI)  financed new grocery stores in food deserts and provided others with healthy options. However, food insecurity is more complex than just getting grocery stores. If people who have become accustomed to unhealthy diets of fast food and processed food often do not know how to choose and prepare healthy food, they will return to the cheaper and more convenient food in a heartbeat. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides food stamps to help those who cannot afford food on their own, like people with disabilities or low-income families. Recently, USDA started a program to allow people to shop with food stamps online at specific retailers. This is especially beneficial to those who may be too at risk for COVID-19 to feel comfortable shopping in person. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program encourages food stamp users to make healthy food purchases through incentives, like getting a dollar worth of produce for every dollar spent. Many convenience stores accept food stamps, which is beneficial to those living far away from grocery stores, but these stores often don’t sell good sources of nutrition. The Food Is Medicine Coalition (FIMC) advocates for food and nutrition services for people with severe or chronic illnesses (Roost). 

What Can You Do

There are actions you can take in your community to reduce food insecurity. You can donate money to Feeding America or donate food to a local food bank. A great way to gather a big donation is to start a food drive in your community. you can ask people to drop certain foods at a drop-off box, or you could incorporate it into a fun event like an entry fee in a competition. Food banks are often understaffed and always need volunteers, so if you have time on your hands, this is a great way to make a difference. Research what bills regarding food insecurity are currently being looked at and contact your elected officials through a letter, phone call, or email to tell them how you feel. Even donating just $25 to Feeding America provides a child with meals for three months. Anything, big or small, will help someone in need (Lewis). 

To fully solve the problem, dramatic legislation and charity are needed. People’s food insecurity is the result of mass systemic issues, like the persistence of racism or the expenses of our healthcare system, which need to be solved to permanently solve this issue. For now, I think what is really important is that a consistent source of nutritious food is established for people affected by food insecurity. However, it is equally important that these people are given the opportunity through classes and workshops to learn how to make good habits when it comes to food. Food insecurity is a large issue that won’t be solved overnight, but with hard work, it can be done. 

More Resources

To see current bills relating to agriculture and food: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/subjects/agriculture_and_food/5816#sort=-current_status_date  

how to volunteer during COVID-19:  https://www.feedingamerica.org/take-action/volunteer

finding a local food bank: https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank

Food insecurity is an issue that affects people both close and far from us. It’s a complex issue that discriminates on race, economic situation, health, age, and neighborhood. It is not easy to solve, as it takes construction, legal change, and reeducation. It is a reflection of the inequalities and problems that persist in our world and manifest themselves in people’s suffering. Next time you are driving around your city, take a moment to notice how often you do or don’t see grocery stores and convenience stores in some areas and think about how that affects the surrounding neighborhoods. As more people become aware, we can create change on all levels.

Feedback 

Feel free to add questions, comments, and suggestions in the comments! Also, please feel free to share:

  1. Do you know of areas in your community that are considered food deserts?
  2. What experiences have you had with food insecurity or fighting food insecurity? 
  3. What creative ways has your community come together to fight hunger? 

Works Cited: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15yqwqkasEUpwaAtjxq9Rq_bg5Y4w6q3LbAAag8z96Pk/edit?usp=sharing

7 Comments

7 comments

  1. Excellent presentation.

    1. Thank you!

  2. GREAT STUFF SJ!!!! 😉

    1. Haha thanks!!

  3. Hi Sarah. I really enjoyed reading your presentation. I really like how much research you did for this project, and the visuals are a nice touch. Very thought provoking.

    1. Thanks, Ned!

  4. Thanks, Ned! I appreciate the feedback!

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