Food Deserts: An Introduction

By Steven Rouk

food desert

What happens when it’s difficult or inconvenient for you to get to a grocery store to buy fresh fruit and vegetables? What if there’s a fast food restaurant right by your house that you could go to instead?

Chances are, you could be living in a food desert.

The USDA says that food deserts are low-income communities that don’t have easy access to healthy, affordable food – more than a mile from a large grocery store in the city, or more than ten miles away in rural areas. Food is intimately linked with our well-being, which means that lack of access to healthy food has numerous negative side-effects. One of the primary ways food deserts impact the residents is increased rates of obesity, which makes sense because of the nature of fast food alternatives available instead.

What’s the scale of the issue? According to some estimate, around 23.5 million people live in food deserts, and almost half of those residents are low-income as well. That’s over 7% of the United States living without easy access to fresh produce and other nutritious food. That’s not even considering the needs of people with food allergies or other dietary restrictions.

Although by many measures Colorado is one of the healthiest states in the United States, we are seeing the same national trends here with regards to weight-gain, a trend that disproportionately affects low-income residents and communities of color.

Unfortunately, buying healthier foods can often be more expensive: between 1989 and 2005, the price of fruits and vegetables in the United States increased about 75 percent while the price of fatty foods decreased 26 percent. Increased obesity is worrying for very practical reasons – the communities with lower access to nutritious food also have higher rates of diet-related diseases and death, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, the rate of diabetes has doubled in recent years, much of which can probably be attributed to the decline in health and the increase in size of the average American.

What can we do about this? If you live in a food desert, knowledge of the issue is the first step to changing it. There are many organizations working to provide greater healthy food access to people who need it, such as the Food Empowerment Project, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, and of course Boulder’s very own Boulder Food Rescue. These websites and many others offer plenty of great ideas such as community food gardens where residents can grow their own food, or how to work with local policy makers on creating policies that encourage and facilitate healthy eating and discourage fast food and junk food. One innovative approach can be found in New York City’s “Green Carts” – mobile produce vendors who only sell fruit and vegetables.

Do you live in a food desert or know someone who does? Let us know how easy or difficult it is for you to get fresh produce. By knowing the issues and working together, we can help ensure healthy food for everyone!

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