“Make sure to eat all your food — there are starving kids in Africa!” … Ever heard something like this growing up? I’m sure many of us have. Not only does this statement over-simplify the value of having access to healthy food, but it also makes the issue seem so far removed from us. The truth is, we are surrounded by food deserts all over our own country and the world. And making sure you “eat all your food” doesn’t help that.
Already, you’re probably wondering, “What is a food desert?” I’m so glad you asked! Get ready to have your mind blown with some of the statistics in this blog post. Then get ready to be part of the solution in whatever way you can — big or small.
What Is A Food Desert?
As a generic definition, a food desert is defined geographically as a community more than one mile away from a grocery store. This makes accessing affordable healthy food very challenging. There are many other facets to consider surrounding food deserts (such as cost of living, racism, cultural appropriateness of available foods, etc) but this is the common definition in use. (source)
About 23.5 million people live in food deserts across the U.S. with nearly half of them being low-income. 2.3 million people (2.2% of all U.S. households) live in rural, low-income areas more than 10 miles away from a supermarket. These statistics are most likely under-reporting due to placing small corner grocery/convenience stores in the same category as larger stores like Safeway. And these small corner stores mainly sell packaged and processed foods – not many healthy options. (source)
Not having access to affordable, healthy food can similarly be termed “food insecure” or having “food insecurities”. For example, 1 in 8 children in Colorado are food insecure, as they may not always know where/when they will get their next meal. (source) Meanwhile, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40 million tons of food are going to landfills in the U.S. every year.
… 40. Million. Tons. of perfectly good and edible food rotting away each year. While at the same time entire communities are grappling with how to feed their families in nutritious ways …
Common Results of Food Deserts
It’s nearly impossible to sum up all the detrimental impacts of these food deserts in one post, but we can definitely identify the big ones.
1. People are unable to access healthy food without overcoming major challenges due to various factors, including:
- Lack of transportation or resources (may not have a car or enough money/time to take a bus, walk, etc)
- May not be able to make the trek due to bad weather or other inconsistent elements
- Options are even more limited when relying on social security or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly “food stamps”) — this site provides some staggering bullet points on food stamps and challenges to their recipients
- Lack of education within the community around healthy foods, recipes, and budgeting or meal-planning (it’s easier to stick with what you know / what’s familiar to feel a sense of security)
2. These communities become targets for the opening of fast-food, convenience stores, liquor stores, and so on.
- “People living in the poorest SES (social-economic status) areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas.” (source)
- Turning to fast-foods or processed/packaged foods is the convenient choice, and often the only choice when faced with tight budgets or time limitations
- Many kids grow up without exposure to healthy foods in their raw form
3. Lack of access to affordable and nutritious food connects to poor health, low performance in education and jobs, and involvement within criminal activity.
- “Ethnic minority and low-income populations suffer from statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population.” (source)
- All of the health conditions listed above give way to serious risks, even fatal results. This article connects the dots between disproportionate death/illness rates in our current COVID-19 pandemic and marginalized communities (often people of color).
- When basic needs are not met, our bodies cannot focus and perform at our best. Food insecure individuals face more struggles in their education and/or job performance.
- With all this in mind, the connection between food insecurity and criminal activity is clear. Basic needs being met impacts overall performance, success, interactions with the world, and so on. (an interesting article on that here)
For a personal, in-depth look into what it’s like living in a food desert, check out this 40-minute documentary on YouTube based in Virginia.
Why Do Food Deserts Exist?
This is another question with a very complicated and multi-faceted answer. I’ll do my best to sum up the top 3 reasons below.
1. Grocery stores in low-income areas often close as a result of low financial gain. The focus is on whether or not it is profitable to feed people, not on the basic human right that everyone should have equitable access to healthy food.
2. America’s history of redlining housing districts (a practice steeped in racial discrimination) is directly connected to the placement of supermarkets. The systems are parallel: “Supermarkets were created with suburban residents in mind, and so the forces that created the suburbs also shaped our food shopping options.” (source)
3. Opening up more grocery stores in an area doesn’t necessarily solve the problem underlying food deserts. It’s human nature to lean into what’s familiar and comfortable, especially when much of your life (budget, employment, family needs, etc) is unstable. Education and resources regarding how to eat healthy in affordable ways are essential.
- “Access at the basic level is something you need to have before you have anything else. But the key message I want to get across is that they’re [grocery stores are] just not successful on their own. We need them plus a range of other things that might make a difference to improve people’s diet. You’ve got to think about the culture around shopping and eating food, too.” (source)
- This review of food access provides much depth into the many factors contributing to food deserts at both a community and an individual level (from The GrowHaus, a Denver program described below)
Food Deserts in Colorado Specifically
- This is a map of the food deserts within Colorado (defined as low-income census tract that is more than one mile away from a grocery store)
- More stats on hunger within Colorado
So, How Can We Help?
There are many programs and organizations working to fight these disparities within our country. Numerous people are actively trying to close the gaps within equitable access to healthy foods. Some of the common places you can turn to within your own community include: food distribution programs, community gardens, food pantries, mobile produce stands / farm trucks, shelters, food recovery programs, and so on. Do a quick Google search on any of the above to get connected with resources in your own area.
If you live in Colorado, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling many resources for you!
Below are some of my favorite organizations to support. If you know of others, feel free to add them in the comments!
- The GrowHaus – an urban farm and food distribution program serving the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver. Their mission is to provide a neighborhood-based system for food production, distribution, education, and economic opportunity. You can support them through purchasing food boxes, donating, and/or volunteering.
- Project Worthmore – a nonprofit organization with 6 programs currently serving the refugee community within Denver-Aurora. This includes a partnership with a local community garden and food sharing program. You can support them through donating (money, food, time) and/or volunteering.
- Metro Caring – a Denver hub with many services including a free marketplace, hydroponics farm, community gardens, nutrition and cooking classes, as well as several other types of assistance (e.g. taxes, ID vouchers, etc). You can support them through donating (money, food, time) and/or volunteering.
- Denver Food Rescue – an organization that partners with over 50 retailers to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste. Then they redistribute it to the community through no-cost grocery programs. They even use bikes to keep their financial and environmental costs down! You can support them through donating (money, food, time), grabbing a pint, and/or volunteering.
- We Don’t Waste – another Denver-based food recovery and redistribution program. They offer free mobile marketplaces to expand community access to healthy food! You can support them through volunteering and/or donating. (check out interesting ways to donate here, including donating a car or supporting them when you shop on Amazon).
- Slow Food Denver – Slow Food Denver is a chapter of Slow Food USA, which is a member of a worldwide food movement, Slow Food International. They provide community resources to support eating locally and sustainably. You can support them through volunteering in various ways.
- SAME Café (So All May Eat) – a Denver-based restaurant and food truck offering meals at whatever cost people can afford! You can support them through volunteering and/or donating (check out various ways here).
Here are some further resources specific to healthy food access within Colorado and beyond!
- Healthy food access in Colorado
- Healthy food retail in Colorado (lots of models and tools for inspiration)
- Finding food resources on a tight budget
- No Kid Hungry (America)
- Hunger Free Colorado
- Kids Food Finder (especially helpful during the summer or during COVID-19 for families reliant on school meals)
Wondering what else can you do?
- Supermarket stakeouts (collect items for local food drives/pantries)
- Write Congress (this faith-based organization provides resources on writing to Congress about current issues related to hunger and poverty in the U.S.)
- Start something! Take inspiration from any of the ideas above and run with it… You never need to be perfect to simply start somewhere.
Access To Healthy Food Is A Right, Not A Privilege
If the year 2020 has revealed anything so far, it’s the amount of injustice we’ve tried to sweep and keep under the rug. A global pandemic, the amplified fight against racism, businesses and families suffering immensely…
We’re all connected. And we cannot simply turn a blind eye — especially not those of us with privilege that can (and should) be used.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the current state of our world or want to help but are unsure where to begin: start here. Let’s start with addressing the most basic of necessities and human rights. Inaccessibility to something as natural as healthy food should never be tolerated.
Our environmental work is intersectional. If we care about the earth, we care about every living being within it.
And you don’t have to look all the way to starving children in Africa (although, by all means, please support as you’re able!). We can help our very neighbors living in food deserts just a few miles away.
If you missed my previous blog post on the benefits of supporting local farmers, here you go!
Also check out this current PBS video on how Denver is tackling food waste!