Food Deserts

Published on
October 19, 2010

They are neighborhoods where a wilting head of lettuce costs two or three times as much as a dollar meal. Where fast-food spots litter the landscape but the nearest supermarket is miles away. "Shopping local" in these communities means buying food at a convenience store or a gas station where limited shelf life restricts choices to calorie-dense, highly processed foods with little nutritional value. Fried food abounds; fresh food is near impossible to find.

Known as "food deserts," these communities where people are, literally, starving for affordable, healthy fare exist in both urban and rural areas. And, the problem is getting worse as supermarkets, struggling with slender profit margins, shut down; prices rise in the remaining stores, and cities, facing staggering budget deficits, cut back on bus routes. When you add in the cost of taking two or three buses to get to a supermarket, "vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.

The lack of convenient access to fruits and vegetables is a public health crisis. Experts have declared that roughly half of Detroit is a food desert, and some 750,000 people in New York City inhabit a nutritional Sahara. Pittsburgh's Hill District-five inner-city neighborhoods-hasn't had a supermarket for more than 30 years. The USDA estimates that 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Living in a food desert is hazardous to your health, contributing to diet-related problems that include obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart diseases, and even premature death. The USDA's goal: eliminate food deserts in America in seven years.

Food deserts is a topic widely discussed in social policy circles and one that has been covered in some local newspapers. But it remains largely unknown to the general public. Mass-circulation national magazines-and I write for several of these-devote lots of space to nutrition, food, and diet, bombarding readers with suggestions on how to manage their food cravings, pass up second helpings, make healthier food choices at the airport or the mall. What's missing from these pages is recognition that for many people those healthier choices are beyond their reach-miles away and priced way too high.

My project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship is to develop stories that will make the crisis of food deserts accessible and vivid to a readership of tens of millions. I plan to do this by highlighting both people trapped in food deserts and those-sometimes one and the same-who are helping to bring "water" to these nutritional Sahara's.

As I'm already discovering in my reporting, there are other stories to tell to other audiences, some that reframe food deserts in the context of food justice. I plan to move on to those stories as well.