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Food Deserts are Environmental Racism at work

As the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up speed and force in the last couple weeks, activists are highlighting ways in which people of color are subject to the impacts of centuries of systematic racism that left African Americans and other people of color at a disadvantage. One of the lesser known ways in which people of color are disadvantaged is environmental racism, defined as: “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” Environmental racism can take the form of lower quality of air and drinking water, as well as what are known as food deserts. According to the Food Empowerment Project, food deserts are: “geographic areas where residents access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.” For example, a study by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture revealed that about 2.3 million people (2.2% of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.

Food deserts are a problem that primarily affects black and brown residents who live in low-income neighborhoods. Studies have shown that wealthy neighborhoods have at least three times more supermarkets than that of low-income neighborhoods, and that white neighborhoods have at least four times as many grocery stores as predominantly black neighborhoods; as well, grocery stores in predominantly black neighborhoods usually have a much smaller selection. Further, people’s choices of food to buy to feed their families is limited by what they can afford, which is compounded by the abundance of fast food restaurants in areas of food deserts.

Lack of access to affordable and nutritious food is linked to several debilitating health issues, primarily type 2 diabetes; food deserts have been linked to higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Food insecurity not only increases one’s risk for Type 2 Diabetes, but managing Type 2 Diabetes is much harder with limited access to nutritious foods that can help one manage their blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Speaking about the presence of food deserts in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, pediatrician Madeleine Shalowitz explains, “(Type 2) diabetes may not require medicine but it does require lifestyle management with regards to diet and exercise... in a food desert, things like healthy fruits and vegetables, a balance of whole grains and protein are difficult to get."

While there are small, local solutions to food insecurity, these solutions are only band-aids that can temporarily bring nutritious foods into areas of food deserts, but long-term fixes have evaded struggling low-income neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods have created local food co-op programs to simultaneously ease food insecurity and create jobs for residents, but many co-op programs have failed due to lack of revenue. Some cities have also begun mobile farmers markets or what are known as bus-stop farmers markets (markets that are located conveniently on public transportation routes), but many have not been able to achieve long lasting success. One of the more successful solutions has been community gardens, such as DC Urban Greens, that provide free or low-cost produce to those in need. Community gardens are managed by local residents, and teach residents about growing their own food and how to cook easy, low-cost meals that utilize produce grown in the gardens. And while community gardens are beneficial for neighborhoods in a myriad of ways, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reach all those in need, and receiving produce can be particularly difficult in times like the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well, there are many government subsidized programs that work to help low-income residents afford fresh and nutritious foods. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a USDA program that helps low-income residents purchase food- distributed in New York with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. In 2008, the NYC Human Resources Administration and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene partnered with Greenmarket to create Health Bucks: coupons distributed to SNAP recipients to incentivize shopping at local markets. While both local and government based programs help, it does not change the fact that a disturbing number of Americans live without convenient access to nutritious food.

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