A Comprehensive Understanding of Food Deserts

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “… parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” From the 2010 census, it was determined that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, with a disproportionate amount found in low-income neighborhoods. This disparity is widened due to the lack of grocery stores in urban and rural areas and diminished availability of healthy food providers. Something so fundamental as access to nutritious food has caused a lasting negative impact on the health of individuals that live in food deserts. And sadly, our St. Louis community hasn’t been spared from these negative impacts.

Food deserts have emerged in America because of a shift in where modern grocery stores are located caused by free market economics. In earlier times in American history, small grocery stores locally owned by farmers or townspeople flourished in all cities, no matter how big or small because this form of market was the most convenient for store owners. Now, large, brand-name, corporate grocery stores dominate the market, and they only set up shop where they think they will make the most profit.   In fact, only 17% of the modern market is owned by local businesses. This generates a shifted equilibrium where fewer grocery stores exist in urban and rural areas. The primary reason for this shift in the grocery store demographic is due to a simple microeconomic force which results in profits for the businesses and cheap prices for convenient customers. When people buy produce, they want the cheapest price possible because most fruits and vegetables are already relatively expensive. For a grocery store to match this need of its customers, they need to evolve into a store that buys and sells in bulk. To further this business model, modern grocery stores naturally grew in physical size and settled in suburban locations where they could maximize customers due to urban to suburban migration that occurred at the same time. Because of this, small rural communities were taken out of the picture because they wouldn’t attract enough customers to generate a profit. Similarly, urban populations were also largely ignored because of the lack of physical space to build grocery stores that sold in bulk.  This new equilibrium of large supermarkets taking over suburban areas has also been supported by technological advancements and the promotion of free market competition once large businesses cut the costs of produce. Think about it…  have you ever seen an enormous Costco in the corn fields of Illinois or in downtown Chicago? Because of this major shift in the idealized grocery store, suburban areas started to flourish and rural and urban areas were largely ignored, thus leading to the rise of food deserts.

This lack of fresh-produce providing grocery stores in rural and urban areas has lead to a large increase in the cost of groceries in these areas compared to suburban areas and has promoted the consumption of fringe foods. Fringe foods consist of highly processed foods that are high in fat and sugar content. The USDA has estimated that “… groceries sold in food deserts cost an average of 10 percent more than groceries sold in suburban markets, meaning people in low-income communities impacted by food insecurity may pay more money for their food.” This increase in price of fresh produce has left people in low income communities to consume unhealthy fringe foods

An increase in fringe food consumption has been linked to an unmistakable increase in adverse health outcomes in food deserts. The concept of “you are what you eat” has become even more relevant in communities that experience food insecurity. It logically follows that if all that one can afford to eat are greasy fast food burgers, potato chips, and chocolate chip cookies one is more likely to experience health disease related to a poor diet. These diseases include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, asthma, chronic illness, and possibly premature death.  In fact in a study called Bringing Healthy Fare to Big-City ‘Food Deserts’, the researchers found that in the city of Chicago, food deserts cause increased deaths due to diabetes compared to areas that have easy access to grocery stores. Additionally, in the American health care system, more than $100 billion are spent annually on obesity and obesity related problems, with a majority of that care going to individuals that live in food deserts. Increasingly widespread unfavorable health outcomes are highly correlated to the increase in consumption of fringe foods in areas that lack access to grocery stores.

An increase in poor health related to an unbalanced diet among populations in food deserts has gained a lot more public and governmental attention in the past couple years. A variety of solutions have been proposed to reduce this national problem. Rural food deserts are taking advantage of online community supported agriculture (CSAs) in which they are able to order fresh produce online from local farmers for cheaper prices. This is a great solution to help support local farmers and reduce the effects of food desserts. For urban communities, the concept of shared community gardens is gaining traction. Another proposed solution is a mobile food pantry system in which a moving van would physically bring healthy foods to populations in a food desert. In addition to these solutions, governmental action was taken under First Lady Michelle Obama; she promoted a Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) to expand healthy food options in food deserts. The HFFI does this by restocking local stores and developing small retailers and farmers markets in rural and urban communities. These solutions seem to make a moderate impact on food deserts.

When Washington University students think of food deserts, they may have a tendency to remove themselves from the problem. However, this covers up the harsh reality that the city of St. Louis is increasingly impacted by food deserts. In fact, “According to Ally Siegler and Melissa Vatterott of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, over 700,000 people across the Metro St. Louis region are low income and have low food access within a half mile and more than half of them live in St. Louis or St. Louis County.”  Just in the city of St. Louis alone, over 56% of people are exceedingly low income and have limited access to food and may experience terrible anxiety about where their next meal is coming from. This number is alarming and most WashU students are unaware of this disparity in basic access to nutritious food in their neighborhoods. The large impact of food deserts needs to be better illuminated in our communities, and more needs to be done to eradicate this deficiency in fresh foods. For example, there is the St. Louis Metro Market, which is a brightly colored van that travels throughout St. Louis delivering produce to communities located in food deserts. This mobile store helps tackle the issue of transportation to grocery stores for many people and has proven to be highly successful in the past two years.

Overall, it is clear that the emergence of food deserts defined by the lack of fresh produce in rural and urban areas has caused a variety of negative effects on millions of people across the United States. The conditions are slowing killing millions of Americans and have lead to an increase in health care costs related to poor diets. We need to focus on eradicating food deserts by making it a basic human right to have access to healthy foods options that allow individuals to make food choices that benefit their health. Making this a human right would ensure that government action is taken to eradicate food deserts. Health literacy and education also need to be promoted to ensure that people are aware of the food options that they have in their communities, and to make sure that they understand the impact of fringe foods. Unfortunately, our own St. Louis community has fallen victim to this growing problem of food deserts, and it is our responsibility as part of the St. Louis community for advocate for the health of populations in food deserts.

Edited by: Will Wick 

Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza

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