Where Did All the Fruits Go? The High Prevalence of Food Deserts in Minority Communities
Written by Manahil Gill. Edited by Megan Lu and Susan Chamling
I was four years old when I first begged for a McDonald’s Happy Meal. I was absurdly tiny and could hardly read, but I was confident about one thing: I wanted a box of crispy golden tenders and perfectly salted fries. I yearned for a kiddie-sized cup of Coke. The smell of fried foods and sodium wafted through my backseat window, and I could hardly resist. After countless pleas, I was riding home satisfied with a still-hot kids’ meal in my lap. As I’d expected, the food was mesmerizing, a welcome respite from the bowls of fruit my parents forced upon me. I was so taken by those chicken nuggets that I begged Mama again, and again, and again for a pit stop at McDonald’s after school.
But it only took one week for the once-addicting smell of grease to make my stomach churn. When Mama pulled up to the drive-thru, I braced myself for the fast food I indulged in much too frequently. Luckily for me, Mama was ecstatic to hear that, at last, I wanted “home food” instead—chopped up cucumbers, lentil soup, spicy chicken curry. For me, McDonald’s was a choice, a fad I could easily escape.
Though for millions of Americans, the luxury of “home food” is not so prevalent. In fact, the fast food I once considered a treat is a regular meal for them; a trip to McDonald’s is not so much a choice but a necessity. Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, meaning that they have little access to fresh foods nearby (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service). For an urban setting to qualify as a food desert, 33% of the population lives over one mile away from a grocery store, while in rural areas, residents live over ten miles away (Caporuscio). In fact, of the 23.5 million Americans living in food deserts, 2.3 million of them fall into the latter category (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service).
“Food desert” is the most commonly used term for areas lacking affordable grocery stores. A “food swamp,” on the other hand, has many fast food restaurants and convenience stores (often filled with processed junk food and lacking fresh produce) to replace the absence of supermarkets. As a result, residents often forego nutritious home-cooked meals for quicker and less costly alternatives. “With few supermarkets or farmers markets [nearby],” Brooks says, “it’s easier to find a Slurpee than a smoothie, cheaper to get the Big Mac meal than grab dinner at a salad bar” (Brooks). When nutritious foods are too expensive or too far away, junk food becomes the primary source for residents’ meals. This over-abundance of unhealthy foods encourages dietary habits that then negatively impact their health.
Poor dietary habits fueled by easy access to unhealthy foods—coupled with a scarcity of nutritional foods—poses health risks for residents of food swamps. In a study conducted by Stowers et al., their research “found that residents of perceived food deserts and swamps had poorer diets relative to those not living in a food swamp/desert” (Stowers et al.). Research on food deserts’ populations reveals that these poorer diets result in elevated risks for health conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease. As mentioned in Stowers et al.’s work, “Chen et al. used MedProfiler questions about dietary behaviors (e.g., frequency of consuming high-fiber, high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-fat…diets and found, even after controlling for home food environment factors, food desert status was associated with obesity” (Stowers et al.). Given that “The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that obesity is one of the most serious public health issues in the twenty-first century”, this close relationship between food deserts and obesity harms our nation, exacerbating America’s growing obesity epidemic (Samson and Hannibal).
What is equally, if not more, concerning is how food deserts put certain minority groups at higher risks for diet-related diseases than others. According to research studies, people in minority communities have a higher chance of living in a food desert/swamp, hindering their ability to maintain healthy diets and thus putting them at higher risk for conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease. When compared to communities with similar rates of poverty, Sevilla says, we find that Black and Latino communities have more access to junk food-laden convenience stores than produce-filled grocery stores (Sevilla). Additionally, “neighborhoods with an 80% or greater proportion of African American residents had an average of 2.4 restaurants/mile [squared] compared to 1.5 restaurants/mile [squared] in neighborhoods with only 20% of African American residents” (Samson and Hannibal). Here, we see the shocking reality that African American-majority neighborhoods have 1.6 times more fast food restaurants than areas with a smaller African American population. A graphic by McKinsey & Company shows that “counties in the US with above-average Black populations tend to have fewer fresh food options, but more convenience stores,” and that “one out of every five Black households is situated in a food desert” (McKinsey & Company).
It is then no surprise that many young African American women were found to be at risk for conditions like diabetes and hypertension (Brooks). Lacking affordable access to healthy foods, these women’s diets consist mainly of foods that are high in fat and sodium, both of which contribute to cardiovascular disease. On top of lacking proper nutrition, these women—and the minority communities they are a part of—are even more hard-hit by food deserts because their lifestyles prevent them from easily forming healthy habits. Given that many residents rely on public transportation, they do not have the time or means to travel far and search for healthful food stores and restaurants (Brooks). Their neighborhoods lack nearby gyms and parks, and many have children and jobs without access to childcare. “Even if they wanted to make healthy choices,” Brooks laments, “their circumstances made it very difficult for them to do so” (Brooks). The consequences of living in a food desert supersede just not having access to healthy food—the effects leak into everyday life, altering daily habits bit by bit until those habits turn into chronic health conditions.
However, hope is not yet lost. By examining the root causes that place minority communities at higher risks for living in food deserts, we can work to devise and implement solutions. Discriminatory policies, such as zoning codes and attention to the issues, feed into the systematic racial poverty that fosters the existence of food deserts and prevents its residents to escape patterns of unhealthy dietary habits. For example, an African American mother from a low-income Nashville suburb yearns to raise her family elsewhere. Demsas from Vox reports that the Haynes area where she resides has a mean annual household income of $20,000 (Demsas). While she wishes that her children could grow up in Franklin—where “a child who grows up in a low-income family would go on to have a household income of $53,000 a year”—Franklin’s population is only 6.6 percent African American (Demsas). Exclusionary zoning has kept her out of her dream home, an outsider because of her race and socioeconomic status. In Franklin, apartments and townhomes are prohibited; only single-family houses, which can average at $550,000, can be built there, locking out countless families who cannot afford to live there (Demsas). As Demsas puts it, “exclusionary zoning laws essentially trap many Black families into low-income neighborhoods by picking them out of richer ones” (Demsas).
To do so, we must think beyond obvious surface-level solutions. Because food deserts exist—especially so in minority communities—as a result of systematic poverty, we must first delve into the root causes of that poverty. For example, increasing residents’ salary, such as through finding job opportunities for them, is a crucial step in alleviating poverty in those areas (Sevilla). Advocating for policies that fairly distribute funding for low-income areas will also make a major impact in increasing wages and job opportunities. Such policies will also encourage businesses to open healthier restaurants and grocery stores in the area, since residents will then be better able to afford them. Enacting policies to help residents financially, however, is not the only long-term solution to consider. Nonprofit organizations, like Mandela Grocery, create economical and healthy grocery stores increases access to nutritional foods for residents who could otherwise not afford them (Sevilla). We should also look beyond just grocery stores as a means to healthy food. Ethnic food marts, farmers’ markets, and grocery delivery services serve a similar and equally beneficial purpose, and are often more easily accessible for residents of food deserts. For example, the Baltimarket program in Baltimore offers food delivery services to public drop-off locations, such as libraries, and waives the delivery fee through the Baltimore Health Department (Brooks). This way, residents can purchase nutritional foods without worrying about transportation and additional charges. Similarly, a study in Texas found that “Hispanic groups had better access to food sources than other minority populations,” due to their use of ethnic food marts and farmers markets (Samson and Hannibal). Here, we see how residents of food deserts can make the best of their situations while long-term solutions slowly come into effect.
Lastly, we should be conscious of the terminology we use for food deserts. Commonly used incorrect terminology for food deserts feeds into our inability to recognize the struggles of minority groups, exacerbating the issue because many fail to recognize the urgency of enacting change. Sevilla highlights the fact that “the term “desert” [implies] that food deserts are naturally occurring…dictated by weather patterns—forces beyond human control” (Sevilla). On the other hand, Sevilla argues that “the term desert implies that the lack of healthy and affordable food is somehow naturally occurring and obscures that it is the direct result of racially discriminatory policies and systematic disinvestment in these communities” (Sevilla). Recognizing why common terminology can be misleadingly harmful will help us best recognize how to enact change in food deserts and improve their residents’ lifestyles.
Many colloquial terms for these areas create negative, almost derogatory connotations that encourage people to veer away from the issue. To help policymakers—and equally as importantly, us folks—better notice, advocate for, and make change to the issue of food deserts, we must first aim to use less negative terms for them. “Swamp, desert, mirage…all these sound like places to stay away from,” Sevilla argues, adding that “using these terms prevents us from naming and addressing the root causes and making systemic change” (Sevilla). Alternatively using the term “food apartheid” will help us “correctly highlight how racist policies shared [those] areas and led to limited access to healthy food,” given that apartheid refers to systemized institutional racial discrimination (Sevilla). Altering our language when discussing food scarcity and inaccessibility will encourage us to view the issue with a more holistic lens and initiate the path for change and, in turn, create better opportunities for Americans residing in food deserts.
Brooks, Kelly. “Research Shows Food Deserts More Abundant in Minority Neighborhoods.”
Johns Hopkins Magazine, Johns Hopkins University, 2014.
Caporuscio, Jessica. “What Are Food Deserts, and How Do They Impact Health?” Edited by
Katherine Marengo, Medical News Today, 22 June 2020.
McKinsey & Company. “Too Many Black Americans Live in Food Deserts.” McKinsey
& Company, 9 Sept. 2021.
Sansom, Garett, and Bryce Hannibal. “Disparate Access to Nutritional Food; Place, Race, and
Equity in the United States.” BMC Nutrition, vol. 7, 29 June 2021.
Sevilla, Nina. “Food Apartheid: Racialized Access to Healthy Affordable Food.” NRDC, 2 Apr.
Stowers, Kristen, et al. “What Are Food Deserts, and How Do They Impact Health?”
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, 29 Sept.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “Access to Affordable
and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their
Consequences.” United States Department of Agriculture, 2009