Food deserts are areas in which residents do not have ready access to fresh produce and a variety of healthy foods. They are often in low-income urban areas that are not attractive locations for the supermarkets and specialty stores many of us visit on a regular basis. As a result, the food choices available to residents tend to be processed foods or fast food.
Children growing up in these areas eat diets high in fats and lacking in diversity and nutrition. It sounds as if there are no ready answers, but that’s not the case. Here are five things you need to know about food deserts and how you can help.
1. Food deserts are not confined to one part of the country or to urban areas
Millions of Americans live without adequate access to healthy foods. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts; more than 25% are children.
Not all food deserts are in urban areas. As many as 98% of the food deserts in the US are in rural areas across the country, where the nearest grocery store is further than 10 miles away.
Urban food deserts are also located across the US. You’ll find them in a who’s who of urban areas ranging from New Orleans, Louisiana in the South to Minneapolis, Minnesota in the Midwest, San Francisco, California on the West Coast, and New York City on the East Coast.
2. Grocery stores are an important source of healthy alternatives
Grocery stores are stocked with a variety of fresh and minimally processed foods. They also have fresh produce available. The likelihood that a person will opt for a healthy meal is far greater when these items are close at hand and affordable.
When convenience stores or fast food restaurants are the only options nearby, the result is a diet skewed to unhealthy choices and inadequate nutrition. The lack of a local grocery store is a vital factor in the creation of a food desert.
3. Neighborhood gardens serve up fresh produce where it’s needed most
In some suburbs, neighborhood gardens are a way for recreational garden enthusiasts to enjoy the results of their efforts.
In food deserts, food gardens are an innovative way to bring produce to the area where it’s needed while involving the community in growing the food. Children learn about the vegetables they harvest and are excited to try them with their meals.
Since it’s time consuming and there needs to be a commitment to caring for the garden, as well as a designated place for the garden, some areas are placing the community gardens at or adjacent to schools. Schools are already a meeting place, and students can learn their science experientially by working in the garden.
4. Mobile farmer’s markets have a wide reach
People can’t get to the produce? Bring the produce to the people.
In many food deserts, the issue is not only that there’s a lack of access to healthy alternatives close by. Often the people living in these areas don’t have cars, or the distance to a store in rural areas makes the trip an expensive one for people living on a fixed income.
One innovative way to give people access to fresh foods is for food trucks to serve as mobile farmer’s markets. It’s a win-win situation.
These markets allow local farmers to sell what they’ve grown directly to the people in areas where they would otherwise have no local market, while giving people who normally lack access to fresh produce the opportunity to add these foods to the foods they prepare at home. When vendors accept WIC (The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), it makes it even more attractive to those seeking healthy foods.
5. Community cooking programs pave the way to new eating habits
Those who have grown up on a diet of fast and convenience foods have little hands-on cooking experience.
By bringing cooking programs to the community and providing the opportunity for residents to try out different foods, cooking techniques, and flavor profiles, the likelihood of lasting change is greatly increased. Local chefs are a great source of cooking knowledge. Many towns and urban centers are hosting chef-led cooking days that are very effective.
What can you do?
Do you want to play a part in ensuring the next generation is healthier than this one?
Put your green thumb to good use in a community garden. Share your passion for cooking at a community cooking day. If you’re based in the US, check Let’s Move or No Kid Hungry for opportunities near you. In other parts of the world, Stop Hunger Now or The Trussel Trust in the UK have ways for you to get involved.