About 25% of Baltimore residents live a quarter of a mile or more from the nearest grocery store (Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future, 2010). When combined with a lack of transportation and a low median income, these supermarket-free zones are known as “food deserts,” and they have a profound negative impact on the health of their residents.
Without a car to transport heavy bags of groceries or the financial means to buy fresh produce and whole grains, those who live in food deserts often obtain their food from nearby convenience stores and cheap fast-food restaurants. This results in a diet high in sugar, fat, and salt, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. In general, people in urban food deserts have shorter lifespans those in neighborhoods where food is accessible (Labovitz, 2017).
Furthermore, in Baltimore, African American and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets on average than white neighborhoods (Bower et. al, 2013).
There are multiple approaches to solving the problem of food deserts. One solution is simply to increase the number of supermarkets in affected areas, with the idea that if a supermarket stocked with healthy food is constructed within walking distance of an inhabitant of a food desert, they are more likely to buy from that store rather than from convenience stores or fast-food places.
Attempts to implement this technique include Michelle Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing initiative. The goal of these initiatives was to use an initial investment to bring healthy food retailers to food deserts. The Pennsylvania initiative succeeded in constructing new grocery stores and increasing residents’ access to healthy food, but no data regarding a change in residents’ health has been recorded (PolicyLink, 2012).
Another method for eliminating food deserts is demonstrated in the New Jersey Healthy Corner Store Initiative. This initiative calls for investment in small corner store retailers, which generally stock unhealthy foods, so that they can begin to stock healthier products instead. While the project yielded “impressive results” (Ramos et. al, 2015) in increasing access to healthy food and bolstering local economies, a bill called the Healthy Small Food Retailer Act which sought to expand the initiative was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie (Tat, 2016).
Both of these solutions, however, merely address the lack of access to healthy food. Some researchers are skeptical that constructing more supermarkets or stocking healthier food actually results in improved public health. One study of 18-30 year olds found no correlation between grocery store availability and diet quality, regardless of income level (Boone-Heinonen et al, 2011). This is likely due to the fact that although access and availability may be increasing, prices are remaining the same. Residents of food deserts, many of whom live below the poverty line, must prioritize paying for rent and utilities over healthy foods.
Policies that address these issues could be subsidizing the production of healthy foods to bring costs down, as well as greater marketing and education to promote the use of healthy food.
A non-profit grocery store called Fare & Square, which offers discounts to customers below the poverty line, has been successful in attracting low-income shoppers since it opened in Chester, Pennsylvania in 2013. The store receives federal and independent funding (Murthy, 2015).
The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), offered through the University of Maryland Extension School, is a free series of workshops to teach low-income Baltimore residents how to eat healthy on a budget. The curriculum includes topics such as how to shop, meal planning and preparation, and understanding nutrition labels. EFNEP participants reported significant dietary improvement, as well as physical activity improvement and increased average food savings (University of Maryland, 2016).
Although the problem of food deserts in America seems daunting, an examination of the evidence and a broader perspective on the root causes of the issue reveals a number of solutions. In the future, policies that focus on making healthy foods less expensive and nutrition education will likely see better results. The eradication of food deserts would constitute an enormous step forward in reducing disparities and boosting health equity.
Boone-Heinonen J, Gordon-Larsen P, Kiefe CI, Shikany JM, Lewis CE, Popkin BM. Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(13):1162-1170. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.283
Bower KM, Thorpe RJ, Rohde C, & Gaskin DJ. (2013). “The Intersection of Neighborhood Racial Segregation, Poverty, and Urbanicity and its Impact on Food Store Availability in the United States.” Preventive Medicine, 58: 33-39.
Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future, 2010. 1 in 4 Baltimore Residents Live in a Food Desert. Retrieved from http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/news-room/News-Releases/2015/1-In-4-Baltimore-Residents-Live-Food-Desert.html.
Labovitz, A. 2017. Health Risks Increase With Grocery Store Distance. Retrieved from http://theweeklychallenger.com/health-risks-increase-with-grocery-store-distance/.
Murthy, K. 2016. An Oasis in a Food Desert. Retrieved from http://billmoyers.com/content/an-oasis-in-a-food-desert/.
PolicyLink, 2012. A Healthy Financing Initiative: An Innovative Approach to Improve Health and Spark Economic Development. Retrieved from http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/hffi-one-pager.original.pdf.
Ramos A., Weiss S., Manon M., Harries C. (2015). Supporting Healthy Corner Store Development in New Jersey. Philadelphia, PA: The Food Trust.
Tat, L. 2016. Dems rally for healthy food access after Christie’s conditional veto of bill. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2016/09/dems-pledge-to-fight-for-healthy-food-access-one-day-after-christies-conditional-veto-of-bill-105149.
University of Maryland, 2016. Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. Retrieved from https://extension.umd.edu/baltimore-city/expanded-food-nutrition-education-program-efnep