As an athlete during high school in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to travel to league games and tournaments throughout the boroughs, often to some of the most notoriously impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city. And after each trip my team and I would ritually ambush the nearest deli like a pack of wildebeests in search of food. On the shelves and refrigerators of these delis faithfully lay our usual, colorful group of friends: the cute girl from UTZ chips luring us with her charm, the Kool-Aid man welcoming us with his gregarious smile (“OH, YEAH!”), and each M&M flavor trampling over one another to steal our attention. One ordinary day on our usual stop at a deli, however, a rebel amongst our team popped a question: “Where are the Clif bars?” I paused. Yes, where are the Clif bars? In all my years visiting throughout these neighborhoods, never have I seen a single Clif bar; in fact, I can’t ever recall consuming a food product in a deli without the omnipresent ingredient high fructose corn syrup! Chewing slowly on a Slim Jim composed of both beef and chicken (a vegan’s nightmare), I became lost in thought: How come there are no healthy foods in any of the neighborhoods I visit? Was it a mere coincidence that this absence of healthy dietary options was so prevalent particularly in low-income neighborhoods? What is this?
Although I was unaware at the time, the phenomenon I was noticing had a name: food deserts. Food deserts are areas where access to healthy, affordable food products is limited. Food deserts are most widespread in poorer, urban communities, like the low-income neighborhoods of New York City I’ve visited. This phenomenon occurs for several reasons and has detrimental effects causing health problems such as obesity and being a critical enforcer of poverty.
Food deserts are thus of serious concern to not merely their inhabitants, but to society as a whole.
There are many causes contributing to the existence of food deserts in New York City. One is the lack of transportation methods and fear of crime. As established before, food deserts are widespread in poorer neighborhoods. However, supermarkets with quality food exist outside those areas in wealthier neighborhoods, meaning if one is determined enough to make the trip, fresh food is accessible. But families without vehicles are disproportionately low-income, making it difficult for residents to overcome the distance between their houses and supermarkets in other areas (Bader, Puricel, and Neckerman. 417). A critic to this excuse may counter, “Then why not take the train or bus?” Though this may seem plausible, “use of public transit for shopping is likely to be time consuming and inefficient” in locations with infrequent or unreliable transit service (Bader, Puricel, and Neckerman 413). And speaking on behalf of most, if not all, New Yorkers, the MTA is as infrequent and unreliable as it gets.
Under these circumstances of lacking automobiles and having a transportation system prone to error, the only realistic solution seems to be walking. Yet here lies another issue: crime. Crime is most common in low-income neighborhoods and fears of such crime discourage people from walking around or doing other physical activity (Bader, Puricel, and Neckerman 414). Hence, in a sense, one may literally risk his or her life just to get a week’s worth of bread and butter. Rise in crime rates near a supermarket could also develop a cycle in which crime deters consumers and hinders profit, causing difficulty in carrying perishable, fresh produce (Bader, Puricel, and Neckerman 414).
Another prominent cause of food deserts in New York City is the incompetency of government in not just regulating food quality, but advocating the consumption of unhealthy food products. How? The federal government invests heavily in the food industry so that giant corporations and farms can produce large amounts of cheap food, mainly in the form of soy and corn (Segal 198). The problem here is not the production of soy and corn but rather that this type of product “ends up in stores as packaged snacks high in saturated fats, sugar and calories” (Segal 199). The government even pays local, small-scale farms not to produce and interfere with large corporations, “dissuading potential farmers from participating in a sustainable food system” (Segal 199). That’s right. The government uses YOUR tax dollars to pay corporations while deterring local farms from contributing to the community with fresh produce. To make matters worse, the New York State government makes registering for food stamps unreasonably complex, discouraging applicants. Essentially, the government uses the money that could’ve been used to fund food stamps to pay large corporations and silence local farmers. As a result, cheap, nutritiously poor food is more often than not put into the mouths of young, poverty-stricken children.
Business costs also account for the prevalence of food deserts in New York City. Fundamental principles of supply and demand indicate that “a food desert might arise in a geographic area in which there is insufficient supply of nutritious food or in an area in which there is insufficient demand” (Haider and Bittler 5). Supply of fresh produce is limited and also expensive; the poor have no way of realistically purchasing the produce and as a result, the demand is low. So instead, businesses establish supermarkets with fresh produce in wealthy areas where demand is high, while offering poorer areas cheaper alternatives (high- caloric food products), which cost less to make and are made less perishable through harmful chemical preservatives (Haider and Bittler 9).
Additionally, the cost of building a store in low-income areas can hinder supermarket development. Purchasing or renting land in order to operate supermarkets with low expected revenue and high security maintenance can become extremely costly and pointless (Ploeg 27). Zoning rules also prohibit certain constructions the supermarket may require. In contrast, local bodegas or convenience stores do not have to deal with such hassle; but since their space is limited, smaller grocery stores have a “harder time accommodating equipment or space needed for fresh produce or perishable products” (Ploeg 26). Subsequently, the quality of food offered by local stores is poor due to consideration of business costs.
But what are the effects? Why should the abundance of food deserts in New York City and around the world matter? The most alarming effect is the degenerating health of residents in low-income areas and the direct/indirect consequences such poor health brings. Given the fact that low-income households have difficulty accessing fresh foods, these households are now forced to depend on cheap, unwholesome substitutes. Such produce are “energy-dense snacks and fast foods” which “have been linked to obesity” (Whitacre, Tsai, and Mulligan 37). Indeed, research has shown that the average American gets “about 21 percent of their total energy intake from beverages” (Whitacre, Tsai, and Mulligan 40). As a result of this dependency on and consumption of cheap, unhealthy foods, residents of low-income areas are often obese, making them prone to health hazards like cardiovascular dysfunction and even cancer. These health effects will inevitably cause low-income families to spend more money they don’t have on medical bills, and even if they are funded by the government through insurances such as Medicaid, millions of tax dollars would be spent on healthcare to treat sicknesses that could’ve been prevented (Segal 202). And obviously it is to no one’s benefit in having a huge portion of society ill and listless.
Perhaps the most unsettling and worrisome consequence of malnutrition and obesity caused by food deserts is the decrease in cognitive performance of children. Studies have shown that obesity hinders the ability of children to learn by causing less cognitive stimulation and limiting healthy social interaction (Smith, Hay, and Campbell 749). Harmful substances in many cheap food products such as high fructose corn syrup and aspartame also chemically damage the brain of youths who are frequently exposed to and consume such junk food.
Cognitive deficits are alarming because of the potential chain of reactions it may bring. Born into poverty, many children of low socioeconomic status often seek education as a means to improve their lifestyle. But when obesity and malnutrition provoke cognitive deficits, these children will perform poorly in school compared to their counterparts in other areas who have access to healthy food produce. Sequentially, children of low socioeconomic status will be disadvantaged and in the long run and will most likely end up with lower paying jobs. Here the cycle of poverty repeats itself as the children remain suppressed in their socioeconomic class. This will endlessly recur unless assertive, conscious action is taken by society.
To solve such a massive, complex issue is not simple: there needs to be multiple initiatives in order to eradicate, or at least diminish, the prevalence of food deserts in low-income neighborhoods. I will now briefly mention some possible solutions worth considering.
Because people low-income are incapable of going to supermarkets for better food options themselves, bringing green carts or farmer’s markets to neighborhoods can be an effective solution in breaking the distance barrier. Green carts consist of mobile vendors selling indigenous food products in an open market. Green carts and farmer’s markets are in essence the same but differ in that farmer’s markets are much bigger and consist of not just indigenous food products, but pre-cooked food as well. These mobile food vendors should be partially funded by the government, giving them incentive to operate in low-income neighborhoods. They don’t even have to be available all days of the week; they can set up on weekends when most people do their grocery shopping. Having these options in a neighborhood deprived of quality food will benefit residents with the opportunity of consuming healthy food, as well as benefiting the local economy.
Making food stamps and “health bucks” more accessible will help alleviate some of the financial pressure in purchasing fresh food products. The New York State government makes registering for and getting food stamps unreasonably complex, discouraging many families to apply. Moreover some families that do qualify and deserve the food stamps are denied their benefits for various reasons (Segal 204). The funding for more food stamps could easily be supported if the government came to their senses and decided not to desecrate taxpayer’s money by using it to prohibit small-scale farmers from putting their products in the market. “Health bucks” are also another viable option in soothing the financial burden of buying quality foods. “Health bucks” are only serviceable in farmer’s markets but have tremendous benefits. For every five dollars an individual spends using “health bucks,” he or she will gain an additional two dollars to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables (Ploeg 27). This measure is currently in practice in New York City, but awareness of it is limited.
The final, and arguably most crucial, step needed is educating society, particularly those directly affected. It is imperative that those who are confined within the restraints of food deserts know more about their options and have better knowledge of food nutrition. This way they are wiser about their selections and strive to obtain better quality foods. There is a need to educate other, more affluent, members of society who care about this issue and are inspired to make a change as well. Government officials need to know more about the looming dangers of food deserts in order to issue policies combating the development of food deserts and local farmers need to know about their potential, pivotal role in supplying quality food products to food deserts.
The debilitating effects of food deserts aren’t as public or blatant like many other social injustices, allowing food deserts to be easily overlooked or dismissed. But it is precisely this elusive nature of food deserts that makes it such an alarming issue: unawareness promotes continuance. So, it is critical that we are at least aware of the rather stealthy injustice of food deserts and in turn take action. Like many other injustices throughout history, food deserts may never disappear; but it is our duty as members of humanity to not remain passive and become active in order to make changes, hoping someday that these food deserts will cease their nutritious drought.
Bader, M. D. M., Purciel, M., Yousefzadeh, P. and Neckerman, K. M. (2010), Disparities in Neighborhood Food Environments: Implications of Measurement Strategies. Economic Geography, 86: 409–430.
Bittler, Marianne, and Steven J. Haider. An Economic View of Food Deserts in the United States. Thesis. University of California-Irvine, 2010. Irvine: University of California-Irvine, 2010. Abstracts in Social Gerontology. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~mbitler/papers/fooddeserts-100816.pdf>.
Ploeg, Michele Ver. “Nutritious Food Is Limited in “Food Deserts.”” Amber Waves 8.1 (2010): 20-27. Amber Waves. Amber Waves, Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/amberwaves/march10/PDF/FoodDesserts.pdf>.\
Segal, Adi. “Food Deserts: A Global Crisis in New York City.” Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development 3.1 (2010): 197-214. Print.
Smith, E., P. Hay, and L. Campbell. “A Review of the Association Between Obesity and Cognitive Function Across the Lifespan: Implications for Novel Approaches to Prevention and Treatment.” Obesity Reviews 12.9 (2011): 740-55. Print.
Whitacre, Paula, Peggy Tsai, and Janet Mulligan. “Diet and Health Evidence to Support Improved Food Access.” The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C.: National Academies, 2009. 37-44. Prin