The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory


Food Deserts: What They Are, What They Do, And What Is Being Done About Them

Kevin Chuang

Nutrition 245, Spring 2012

What are they?

  • Described as areas in the country which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined, using various data including Census data, that residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.1
Map of food deserts in the US
  • These are places where no grocery stores, farmer’s markets or produce stands exist within a distance of one mile in urban areas or within ten miles in rural areas.2
  • North Carolina has over 171 food deserts across 57 counties, affecting 410,000 residents.11
  • They exist in both rural and urban areas
    • Food deserts in rural areas are due to isolation, lack of transport, decline of agricultural lifestyle, high unemployment, and inability to support a large supermarket.2
    • Food deserts also exist in urban areas. Again, lack of transportation is one factor. Other factors include unavailability of large lots for grocery stores, unlikelihood of setting up shop in low-income areas, and small stores selling at higher prices due to lack of competition.2

What are the effects?

  • Kids
    • Nearly one in three children in NC is food insecure, which means that sometime in the last 12 months their families did not have enough money to purchase enough food. 3
    • Even if the household had the funds to purchase fresh produce, many low-income neighborhoods do not have access to grocery stores due to food deserts in NC.3
    • Evidence confirms that children who are food insecure are more likely to miss school, more likely to have difficulty paying attention in school and less likely to graduate.3
    • Obesity
      • Communities without access to healthy foods are disproportionately impacted by obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.3
      • In a study by Larson et al. 2009, they found that better access to a supermarket is associated with reduced risk of obesity and better access to convenience stores is associated with increased risk of obesity.4
  • Retail gaps
    • Longer travel times to buy groceries have been shown to contribute to rural obesity. This is shown by positive associations between BMI, travel distance to grocery stores, and time spent in cars.5
    • In 2001, 26.5% Americans with incomes below $20,000 did not own a car. Lack of transportation and sparse availability of groceries creates barriers to the access of low-cost, healthy food.6
    • Distance as a sole factor may not always explain food deserts. Living close to a shop, but without private transportation can be just as detrimental as living in a food desert, with lack of public transportation and difficulty of walking being supporting factors.8
    • Promoting greater access to supermarkets is not the only thing that will help improve diet quality. Studies suggest that subsidizing specific foods, shifting food costs, and reducing the availability of fast food chain restaurants should also be considered.12

What is being done about Food Deserts?

Studies done by Locke have investigated using small-scale food distribution points as potential solutions for food access problems. In his research, he finds these lessons that can lead to sustainable enterprises:

  • Be aware of scale-related challenges: small stores have trouble competing with supermarkets
  • Accept nutritional assistance benefits from federal and state governments
  • Think beyond corner stores: consider mobile strategies to bring produce to the customers
  • Align business model with community needs
  • Small business expertise is crucial for store sustainability
  • Connect to local farmers11

The following are just some examples of what people and organizations have been doing to alleviate the effects of food deserts.

  • Inter-Faith Food Shuttle
    • Mobile markets: bringing food to food insecure areas2
    • Community garden programs: create source of fresh, local foods2
    • Grocery bag delivery: fresh produce given to low-income families and seniors2
    • Economic Empowerment: teach culinary and employment skills to break the cycle of poverty. For teens, teach them sustainable, organic farming education.2
    • Empowerment through Nutrition Education: teach the community how to navigate the food system on a limited budget.2
    • Building a Farmers Market
      • In Bertie County, high school students worked a whole year to build a 2,000 sq. ft. farmers market in a food desert area.7
      • Non-profit organizations opening
        • TROSA, a Durham non-profit, opened a grocery store to bring fresh produce to downtown Durham. This is highly beneficial for local residents because most commercial growth avoids the area due to crime.9
        • Policy Change
          • Community Health Councils (CHC), based in South Los Angeles, worked to create a community change model to address health problems in the African American community.10
          • Succeeded in creating two policies:
            • Market Opportunities: incentives for Food Retailers: a multiagency incentive package aiming to attract supermarkets and restaurants to vulnerable communities.10
            • Interim Control Ordinance: halts the opening of fast food restaurants in order to buy time for the local government to plan ways to integrate healthy local food environments.10

References

1Carolina Virginia Farmer. USDA Website Locates “Food Deserts”. 2011.

2Interfaith Food Shuttle. A Food Desert? What’s that?. 2012.

3The Carrboro Citizen. N.C. kids face ongoing food hardship. 2010.

4USDA. Access to Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food—Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress. 2009.

5Preventing Chronic Disease. Commute Times, Food Retail Gaps, and Body Mass Index in North Carolina Counties. 2010.

6Preventing Chronic Disease. A Systematic Review of Food Deserts 1997-2007. 2009.

7Co.Exist. High School Students Build A Farmer’s Market In A Food Desert. 2012.

8Health & Place. Effects of mobility and location on food access. 2008.

9IndyWeek. An Oasis in a Food Desert. 2010.

10Family Community Health. Transforming the Urban Food Desert From the Grassroots Up: A Model for Community Change. 2011.

11Sanford School Master of Public Policy Program Master’s Projects: Financing Fresh Food: Retail Solutions to North Carolina Food Deserts. 2012

12Archives of Internal Medicine. Health Care Reform: Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores. 2011

Annotated Bibliography

Carolina Virginia Farmer. USDA Website Locates “Food Deserts”. 2011.

http://farmprogress.com/story-usda-website-locates-food-deserts-0-49114

This short article talks about the use of the USDA’s Food Desert map which shows where the food deserts are in the US. They talk about how the resource can be used to increase awareness of areas that the government has deemed to be areas where low income residents live and have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. As the site’s name suggests, the article focuses mostly on the food deserts that are located in the Carolinas and Virginia, commenting that the “Carolina-Virginia region seems to fare pretty well in terms of ‘food deserts.’”

Interfaith Food Shuttle. A Food Desert? What’s that?. 2012.

http://foodshuttle.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/a-food-desert-whats-that/

This is an article by Interfaith Food Shuttle. They talk about what they are, who are affected, and why they exist. In the second half of their article, they talk about the numerous programs that they are running in order to help low-income families and seniors cope with their lack of access to fresh produce.

The Carrboro Citizen. N.C. kids face ongoing food hardship. 2010. http://www.carrborocitizen.com/main/2010/04/01/n-c-kids-face-ongoing-food-hardship-2/

This article comes from the nearby town of Carrboro. They talk about some statistics of how kids are being affected by food deserts. They take a stance of pushing for healthier foods both at school and at home by suggesting several ideas that government can do such as making a strongly funded Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that includes an expanded Afterschool Meal Program.

USDA. Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food—Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress. 2009.

http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/AP/AP036/

The article I used from this is just a fraction of the whole report. The part I used focuses on food access and effects on diet. It is supported by several case studies conducted nationwide and compiled to give a detailed view on the nation’s status on its position on food deserts. The study came up with mixed data. Some areas increased in fruits and vegetables consumption while others showed no effect. In the end there are several things that are still unknown and needs more research in order to better understand causal relationships between certain foods and factors that affect health and BMI.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Preventing Chronic Disease. Commute Times, Food Retail Gaps, and Body Mass Index in North Carolina Counties. 2010.

http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2010/sep/09_0208.htm

This academic paper focused on looking at the Census data and finding correlations between BMI and retail gaps and commute times. This team researched specifically North Carolina counties by using the 1990 and 2000 Census data to obtain mean county-level commute times, county-level food retail gap per capita, and county-level BMI. They then ran multilevel regression models to determine if there are any connections between the variables. The group concluded that longer commutes and greater retail gaps may contribute to rural obesity.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Preventing Chronic Disease. A Systematic Review of Food Deserts 1997-2007. 2009.

http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2009/jul/08_0163.htm

This research draws its information from studies done worldwide in other countries including the US. The other areas that were studied are Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. Although there are several areas that were studied, the US was the only one with substantial information to prove that there are food deserts. It even says in the “Implications for Research” section that further research is warranted, particularly in areas other than United States. After talking about results of the study, only the US was discussed in depth while the other countries had little to nothing to be said about their food desert situation.

Co.Exist. High School Students Build A Farmer’s Market In A Food Desert. 2012.

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1678622/high-school-students-build-a-farmers-market-in-a-food-desert

This was a very short article that I found online about how high school students helped their community by undertaking a year-long process of constructing a Farmer’s Market in Bertie County, NC. I chose this particularly because I thought it was a great example of students taking action in improving conditions in an otherwise produce-scarce area. It does not always require big organizations to step up and create such projects, students can also take action. What was amazing was that the students who participated had no carpentry experience beforehand so all of this was a new experience. In addition, those that worked on building received high school credit for their good work.

Health & Place. Effects of mobility and location on food access. 2008.

http://www.ana.org.nz/documents/Effectsofmobilityandlocationonfoodaccess.pdf

Although this article is based in Australia, I still thought the findings can still be applied to similar areas in general. A big part of the paper is recording and analyzing responses from numerous participants talking about their shopping habits. An interesting point that the paper introduces, and that I use in my fact sheet, was that distance was not the only problem in reaching produce. Instead, they state that living within 2.5km to produce but lacking private transportation can be just as detrimental as living in a food desert. The reason being is that walking can be a tedious and daunting task alone, not including the risk of crime on the way. In addition, public transportation was not a possible mode of travel for many.

IndyWeek. An Oasis in a Food Desert. 2010.

http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/an-oasis-in-a-food-desert/Content?oid=1434063

This article is similar to the Carrboro one mentioned earlier. This focuses on a grocery store opened in downtown Durham by the non-profit group TROSA, which is known for being a struggling neighborhood. Local residents are glad for the development because most commercial development is usually scared away by the presence of crime in the area. If the store had not been set up, local residents would have to walk or take public transportation around two miles away to get fresh produce. Instead many often opt for convenience stores which offer little to no fresh produce at all. They hope to become a catalyst for many more business to come and provide more services and shops for those in downtown Durham.

Family Community Health. Transforming the Urban Food Desert From the Grassroots Up: A Model for Community Change. 2011.

http://www.chc-inc.org/downloads/PB%20Family%20Community%20Health.pdf

This paper is more about the legal aspect of food deserts. Instead of building farmers markets or grocery markets, this team tries to address health disparities of the African American community in Southern Los Angeles by creating community change models. Much of the paper is discussing the implementation of the community models. In the end they were able to get two policy changes that will hopefully benefit the community. One is called the Market Opportunities: Incentives for Food Retailers. This policy is an incentive package made to entice stores and restaurants to come open up shop in the area. The other policy is the Interim Control Ordinance. This policy serves to halt the permit for fast-food restaurants to build in the community to buy time for the local government to develop plans for a healthier local food environment.

 

Sanford School Master of Public Policy Program Master’s Projects: Financing Fresh Food: Retail Solutions to North Carolina Food Deserts. 2012

http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/5162

This paper researches the approaches that private, non-profit, and government-driven healthy food initiatives have used to create sustainable retail programs to address the issue of food deserts. He documents several experiences from interviewing corresponding representatives in the different types of programs. The tips that these interviewees are helpful for making sustainable programs such as taking advantage of public funding mechanisms and basing the business model off of community needs and interests.

Archives of Internal Medicine. Health Care Reform: Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores. 2011

http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/171/13/1162

This paper researches fast food consumption, diet quality, adherence to fruits and vegetable recommendations as a function of fast food chain, supermarket, and grocery store availability. The study found that only providing more access to groceries does not help with improving diet quality. Greater supermarket availability was seen as unrelated to diet quality and fruits and vegetable intake while greater grocery store availability and diet quality produced mixed results. The study suggests that complimentary or alternative strategies such as reducing availability of fast food chain restaurants in the area can promote dietary changes.



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