Food deserts are an important concept. The formal definition of a food desert is an area where residents have to travel over a mile to access a grocery store. Yet while it is powerful to name this phenomenon, this name hides deeper inequalities, inequalities which require solutions more complex than simply building a grocery store front.
It is not difficult to guess which inequalities are at work here, and when we unpack them we can easily see a relationship, if not more. Immediately an onlooker can guess that neighborhoods lacking grocery stores are poor. Perhaps a chain store or an independent shopkeeper does not consider it a profitable investment to open a store where residents often choose fast food and where it will be vulnerable to vandalism. But perhaps we followed this speculation a little further? Why is it that lower-income areas have higher rates of crime, and how does that in turn impact residents’ food choices? Why do poorer people choose less healthy food? A definition of stores, locations, and distances does not take into account socioeconomic and political factors, income or food prices, safety or store quality.
However, food inequality not only correlates with income inequality and high crime, but the latter also explains the former.
There is has been pushback against the language of food deserts for some time. The argument is that it implies a simple solution of opening more grocery stores in areas that do not have them. Groups, including the USDA, have moved toward embracing definitions that acknowledge other barriers to fresh food. These consider retailers aside from grocery stores, such as local stores, bodegas, and farmers’ markets. Furthermore, another definition takes into account socioeconomic and political factors and focus more on income and food prices as barriers to fresh food.
However, these difficulties are usually compounded for people living in food deserts, because they can struggle with finding culturally appropriate foods and accommodating dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance and personal allergies. This helps demonstrate that there is much more to want for fresh food than location alone, that the impact of a lack of a nearby grocery store is compounded by the living situation of those who live in the food desert.
A comparison of rural and urban food deserts can continue to illuminate this phenomenon. Most rural food deserts fit the traditional definition, existing because of distance to a market. However, urban food deserts are more complicated. Often times, these exist in some of the densest parts of a city, and want for fresh food has much more to do with poverty.
There are more considerations regarding income and prices. When fruits and vegetables are prices high, public health officials see greater increases in children’s weight over time. However, those with higher incomes also tend to maker healthier use of their dollars when shopping. This breaks the misconceptions about people living in food deserts either choosing fast food because fresh food does not exist or because the fresh food is more expensive. Those with more money can spend the same money at grocery stores and have better health outcomes.
There are many competing and interacting ways that income inequality leads to unequal access to healthy food. There is simple access to a nearby retailer of fresh food, and there are ways that wages and prices can impact health outcomes regardless of whether a retailer is available. Within Los Angeles, we have many food deserts, and they correlate with low-income and high-crime areas. It is easy to see why residents of these areas might struggle with personal health when they find barriers to accessing legitimate, high-paying jobs.