Section IV: Food Deserts and Produce Accessibility

Food deserts are another factor that contributes to the issue of limited healthy and cost efficient food access, specifically in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color and rural parts of the country. Food access inequality has been a systemic issue for decades in the U.S., which accounts for many of the health disparities between race and class lines. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their home. “A multistate study found that low-income census tracts had half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts” (Treuhaft et al 2010).

It was also found that low-income zip codes tend to have 30 percent more convenience/corner and liquor stores than traditional food stores, which makes less healthy options an easier and predominant option (Treuhaft et al 2016). The issue of the food desert is also prevalent in rural areas such as Mississippi. In Mississippi, more than 70 percent of food stamp eligible households travel more than 30 miles to reach a supermarket. It is also one of the states with the highest obesity level in the country. Lack of transportation to markets with healthy food options can be another factor that deters or prevents people living in food deserts from making the trip to the supermarket.

Quality of produce also tends to be poor in cities like Detroit and New Haven in low-income communities of color when compared to more affluent or racially mixed neighborhoods. By using statistical modeling techniques that control for a variety of factors, researchers estimate that for each fast food restaurant that is removed from a neighborhood with a high density of such establishments, there would be an average of a one pound weight decrease among residents (Treuhaft et al 2016). These researchers also found that by adding a grocery store to high poverty neighborhoods, there would be an average of a three pound weight decrease (Treuhaft et al 2010).

In a study following residents in Detroit and Chicago, it was found that those who lived farther from a grocery store, but closer to a convenience stores and fast food chains, had significantly higher levels of premature death as a result of diabetes.

In an assessment of 685 urban and rural census tracts in three states, it was found that low-income neighborhoods have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest neighborhoods. Also, it was found that there are four times as many supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods compared to predominantly black ones. In a collection of 28 studies regarding the specifics of food availability around the country, 21 found that “food stores in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color are less likely to stock healthy foods, offer lower quality items and have higher prices compared to stores in higher-income or predominantly white communities while only 7 found mixed results (for example, lower quality but similar prices and selection) or no difference” (Treuhaft et al 2010).

There is evidence from countless studies that supports the connection between lack of chain or comprehensive supermarkets and serious diet-related health issues that could eventually be the cause of premature death. A child can be directly affected if their parent or caregiver suffers from health complications related to diet, as expenses for healthcare will become a greater financial burden, mobility and freedom can be restricted for those adults or premature death may leave children in a tragic situation.

Moreover, parents might prioritize their child’s health needs over their own or find it too difficult to reach stores that sell products that fulfill their health needs, unintentionally putting their entire household at greater risk. In a survey in East Harlem, New York, 40 percent of diabetic adults said that they did not follow their recommended dietary guidelines because the foods required were scarce and expensive in their neighborhood markets and shops. In a recent national study that looked at 70,000 teens, it was discovered that increased availability to chain supermarkets was associated with lower rates of teens that were obese or overweight (Treuhaft et al 2010).

In a 2009 study of Chicago’s food deserts, it was brought to light that as the distance to the closest supermarket increases relative to the distance to the nearest fringe food outlet, the Years of Potential Life Loss due to diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver disease increases significantly in African American communities.

Section V: Routes to a Better, Hungerless America

From government funded programs, social marketing campaigns and more local initiatives, there are several routes that are and were explored to help reduce the amount of food insecure folks in the United States. There are government funded programs such as the supplemental nutrition assistance program and the previously mentioned WIC, which help the most vulnerable populations access food.

Besides these programs, there was tremendous work done under former first lady Michelle Obama to combat child obesity, but also to address general health, wellness and fitness in U.S. children. Finally, there was a rise in the popularity of community gardens around the country and more conversations surrounding the wide array of benefits that can be derived from such initiatives.

In 2009, over 50 million people in the United States reported to be living in households that were food insecure and over 1/3 of these households experienced “very low food security.” These statistics soared from their past levels in 2007 and has policy-makers concerned about the current state of hunger in America. There are programs in place around the country, such as the School Breakfast and Lunch Programs and local outreach groups that are working to combat that issue.

While 94 percent of Feeding America client households with school-age children utilize the National School Lunch Program, only 46 percent use the National School Breakfast Program. However, studies and reports from Universities of Minnesota, Harvard, Boston and Tufts claim that participation in School Breakfast Programs is shown to have a positive effect on students’ attendance, behavior and academic achievement (Kennedy et al 2001). Many of the families these programs serve are living in small spaces with large families, as there was an association found between greater food insecurity and larger low-income families.

Additionally, a large percentage of client households are unstably housed and have one or more children that are five-years-old or younger. SNAP, which is the supplemental nutrition assistance program formerly regarded as the food stamp program, is taking on the challenge of remedying the food crisis in the U.S. Paradoxically, the United States is a food-rich country, yet it struggles with high levels of food waste and hunger (Gunders 2012).

In 2016, it was reported that 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away, which is equivalent to 60 million tons or $160 billion worth of produce annually being wasted (Gunders 2012). According to the Feeding America website, SNAP serves two types of clientele: “Those who can’t protect themselves and those who need a helping hand to pull themselves up.” The majority of these recipients are either children, the elderly or disabled adults. SNAP is available only to those who qualify and are at the low-income level. The recipients are given Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which can be used temporarily for food purchases only at a rate of about $1.40 benefit per meal or $126 per person per month.

Another attempt to solve the crisis revolves around educating youth about the importance of their eating patterns and how they can take control over what they decide to consume (CDC 2017). Through making children aware of the effect food can have on their development and health, it is hoped that as they grow older, they will be more conscious individuals when it comes to diet. During former president Barack Obama's administration, Michelle Obama made it her mission to work to remedy the obesity and hunger issues facing the children of the United States.

The “Let’s Move” initiative began with a simple gesture in 2009; Michelle Obama planting the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. The action prompted a nationwide discussion regarding the current state of childhood health and nutrition, which eventually led to the conception of the “Let’s Move” campaign to promote health-conscious lifestyles for children and families all around the country. While the primary focus of “Let’s Move” was to fight childhood obesity, many of its programs also worked to improve access to healthy and nutritious foods to the children at the most risk of either going hungry or being fed processed foods with higher levels of sugar and saturated fats.

One of the achievements of Michelle Obama’s work was the first update after 15 years to the national school meal nutrition standards through the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which also increased funding for the first time in 30 years (White House Archives 2017). These changes allowed more children to receive free or inexpensive meals that had become centered around whole grains and a more diverse array of fruits and vegetables. Another successful project was the “Let’s Move! Salad Bars to Schools,” which provided 3 million students with access to salad bars (White House Archives 2017).

Furthermore, the “Let’s Move! Child Care” action had child care providers around the country make a commitment to improving the quality of meals for greater nutrition, increasing opportunities for physical activity and limiting screen time in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Nemours (White House Archives 2017). In order to bolster support on local levels around the country, “Let’s Move” also created their towns and cities partnership in which 520 elected officials made a commitment to the program, thus positively affecting 1 in 4 Americans or 81 million people (White House Archives 2017).

Other initiatives that look to solve the food desert crisis include community gardens and farmers markets. There is no single solution to the complex issue of childhood hunger. However, there are feasible opportunities to make positive change for the sake of the next generation and reduce the amount of children with low to extremely low food security. Community gardens are becoming increasingly popular in urban areas of the United States.

The benefits go beyond just the access to fresh produce, as gardens can foster a sense of unity between community members and provide them with a sense of pride when they see the affect their organizing has within the community at large.

For young children, the community garden can become a safe space for play and creating connections with mentors. Gardens also can instill in children and adults a greater appreciation for their health and the choices that they have to make regarding their own diet and future. The establishment and upkeep of community gardens can help to perpetuate a mindful and health-conscious neighborhood where diabetes, hunger and obesity are less prominent. Additionally, health education and the experience of working in a garden are mutually beneficial.

It is proven that a child will learn material better through having hands-on experience to contextualize and personalize the content.

Through incorporating urban gardens into the public education system and even in day care institutions, children can form meaningful connections between what they are learning about the importance of whole foods and their own actions in the garden. Parent engagement in community gardens can also prompt a deeper level of commitment to discussions at home regarding nutrition and exercise. Furthermore, for busy working parents, the garden can become a source of friendship and aid in times of need as the garden should serve to increase feelings of mutual goals between families.

One of the most comprehensive solutions to eradicating hunger is eradicating poverty. Thus, community gardens can link both entrepreneurship and sustainable food opportunities. Urban gardens initiatives around the country have worked to provide students with leadership experience and empowerment through organized production and commerce.

An instance of such integration is Rochester Roots, which has three schoolyard gardens in the Rochester community. The teachers use the gardens in their lessons and all of the high-grade produce (90 percent at heirloom status) go back to the students and community members. Parent and child seasonal cooking classes are taught from November to May. Additionally, in July and August there are paid internships offered to low-income teenagers. “Community food projects funded by the USDA provided an estimated 2,300 jobs and incubated over 3,600 micro-businesses” (Golden 2014).

Once many of these gardeners have gained some experience planting and organizing the logistics of running the garden, they pass the operation on and have the skills and confidence to start their own business. The creation of new jobs through community gardens is just one example of how these gardens can foster positive change and growth on not just physical and social, but also economic levels.

An estimate from the United Nations Development Program claims that 15 percent of food worldwide is grown in cities. More countries, such as Cuba, are beginning to utilize urban agriculture to help resolve food shortages and are reaping the benefits. According to a report from the American Planning Association, in large cities across the U.S. such as Atlanta, Portland, Chicago and Boston, more and more land is being allocated to urban agriculture.

The rise in urban agriculture popularity benefits those involved on multiple levels. Research found that gardens and farms beautified the neighborhoods, which increases home value while also employing residents and bolstering more local pride and attachment to their community, which results in a decrease in crime and vandalization. While community gardens cannot provide people with all of the nutrients they might need, it is a proven successful strategy to increasing food security and sovereignty.

Additionally, community gardens cut household grocery costs so that those participating are not paying high prices to eat well. Research shows that people who participate or have family members that participate in community gardens “were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day than people without a gardening household member” (Alaimo, Packnett, Miles, & Kruger, 2008).

It was also found that youth involved in programs through community gardens that discussed choosing healthy whole foods over processed and fast food ate less of these unhealthy foods as a result of their participation (Golden 2013). Clearly, the presence of a well-run community garden program can benefit all community members in becoming healthier people and developing skills that can continue to better the community as a whole.

As long as there are programs in place that support low-income communities access quality and inexpensive produce, there is hope for the current status of child nutrition in the United States. It is critical for not only the government to aid its most vulnerable populations to receive healthy and nutritious foods, but also for the communities to work from the inside to create spaces where conscious food choices are fostered and encouraged.

The prevalence of fast food chains and highly processed foods is a challenge facing primarily low-income communities and neighborhoods of color. There is injustice in who receives quality produce and who has to travel long distances to provide their family with a healthy meal. All people deserve access to foods that will keep their body able and in good shape.

All expecting mothers and children of all communities deserve access to foods that will help their development, which will affect their functioning later in life.

The right to be able to make informed choices about diet is one that should be granted to each and every child in the country. In such a food abundant country, our food deserts are much too prominent and our children are the victims of a nutritional crisis that has feasible solutions. The work of political leaders such as Michelle Obama have made positive changes and raised awareness surrounding the current condition of food inequality in the country.

However, there is still work to be done.

Through new and reformed policy that address food deserts and nutritional standards at schools and daycares, through community garden efforts that teach and provide meaningful connections to diet, and through changing the way we think about our daily food choices, great change can be made to work to eradicate hidden hunger.