Hungry for the Holidays: A Look at Urban Food Insecurity

by Dec 3, 2014Resources, Society

Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.


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During these holiday months, most of us are gathering with family and friends, feeling grateful for what we have (and/or letting our families drive us crazy), and eating a bounty of our favorite foods of the season between Thanksgiving, Friendsgivings, work parties, and holiday parties. Unfortunately, not everyone has this feeling of food abundance around the holidays; this article seeks to understand what is going on in our cities that keeps some residents from eating well.

Food Deserts

Food deserts are categorized as geographical areas where residents have limited or nonexistent access to healthy food options – especially fresh fruits and vegetables. This is due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance, and according to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.3 million Americans – more than 2% of all US households – live more than one mile from a supermarket, and do not own a car. In urban areas, public transportation may help residents overcome the distance between them and the nearest grocery store, but in many cases, a trip to the grocery store could mean several buses or trains. The National American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is housed in the US Census Bureau, and it is the standard used by Federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing statistical data related to the U.S. business economy.. NAICS code 4451 covers a category called ‘Grocery Stores’, and within this category are Supermarkets, Other Grocery Stores, Convenience Stores, and Liquor Stores. Essentially, this classification system may be counting liquor stores that have a basket of unpriced apples and bananas at the counter as a grocery store, which makes the above statistics even more glaring.

Even if we’re under-estimating the statistics, hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently living in urban and suburban areas classified as food deserts, leaving them without access to affordable and healthy food.

Food deserts most often affect the residents of low-income communities and communities of color. Studies show that wealthy neighborhoods have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do; that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets than predominantly black ones do; and that the stores in African American neighborhoods are generally smaller with less selection.

The Geography of US Food Deserts

The USDA built a mapping tool that identifies areas of the US that have low access to food; it’s an interactive tool that lets users layer information regarding distance to the nearest grocery store and income levels, onto the geographical area of the US. A snapshot of the map depicting areas of ‘low food access’ is below:

This image maps food deserts in urban and rural areas; it’s definition of ‘far’ from a grocery store (areas highlighted in green = areas of low food access) is one mile in an urban area, and ten miles in rural areas.

Food for Thought

The same socio-economic groups who are most likely to live in a food desert, are those who are most likely to be obese or have Type II (adult onset) diabetes. Public awareness of the problems surrounding food deserts is growing; thanks in large part to Michelle Obama whose February 2010 public cry to eliminate all food deserts within 7 years was heard during her launch of the Let’s Move campaign.

Michelle Obama has spearheaded the Let’s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity, and this includes a goal of eradicating food deserts by 2017 with a $400 million investment from the government focused on providing tax breaks to supermarkets that open in food deserts. Many urban areas are also implementing initiatives locally to solve their food desert challenges.

Cities Rising to the Challenge

Chicago– More than 500,000 residents (mostly African-American) live in food deserts, and an additional 400,000 live in neighborhoods with a preponderance of fast food restaurants and no grocery stores nearby. Some food justice activists have sought to close this gap by opening food co-ops in underserved areas where supermarkets have historically been unsuccessful. In addition to selling fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, bulk whole grains and beans, and soy-based meat substitutes, some of these stores (like Fresh Family Foods on the city’s South Side) also offer cooking and nutrition classes to educate the public about making healthy food choices.

Los Angeles– In 2008, the Los Angeles City Council voted to enact a moratorium on new fast food outlets in a 32-square-mile zone encompassing some of South L.A.’s most arid food deserts, an area where about 97 percent of the population is either Latino, African-American, or of mixed race. Having fewer fast food restaurants created greater demand for more and better food choices, so Council members subsequently passed another measure offering grocery stores and sit-down restaurants serving healthier meals financial incentives to open up in underserved communities. These policies have so far succeeded in bringing the first new supermarket to South L.A. in about a decade.

New York City – An estimated 750,000 New York City residents live in food deserts, while about three million people live in places where stores that sell fresh produce are few or far away. Supermarkets throughout New York City have closed down in recent years due to increasing rents and shrinking profit margins, but the disappearance of urban grocery stores has had the most serious impact on low-income communities, especially those that are predominantly African-American (such East/Central Harlem and North/Central Brooklyn). To fill this void, the city started its Green Carts program, which has been bringing affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved areas while providing jobs for vendors since 2008. Hundreds of Green Carts are already on the streets in food deserts, and that number is rapidly increasing as prospective vendors obtain training, licenses and permits from the city.

Food deserts exist within a wider frame of food security issues and questions around how we are going to build sustainable food systems. Food distribution networks, political-agricultural practices, poverty, and social inequality are all aspects of food insecurity in this country and globally. Check back next month for more on building sustainable food systems and strong local economies.

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