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Food deserts can be described as 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 instance, according to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2 percent of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car. In urban areas, access to public transportation may help residents overcome the difficulties posed by distance, but economic forces have driven grocery stores out of many cities in recent years, making them so few and far between that an individual’s food shopping trip may require taking several buses or trains. In suburban and rural areas, public transportation is either very limited or unavailable, with supermarkets often many miles away from people’s homes.
The other defining characteristic of food deserts is socio-economic: that is, they are most commonly found in black and brown communities and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars). Studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection. People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford—and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Processed foods (such as snack cakes, chips and soda) typically sold by corner delis, convenience stores and liquor stores are usually just as unhealthy.
Those living in food deserts may also find it difficult to locate foods that are culturally appropriate for them, and dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance, gluten allergies, etc., also limit the food choices of those who do not have access to larger chain stores that have more selection. Additionally, studies have found that urban residents who purchase groceries at small neighborhood stores pay between 3 and 37 percent more than suburbanites buying the same products at supermarkets.
Healthier foods are generally more expensive than unhealthful foods, particularly in food deserts. For instance, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the US increased by nearly 75 percent between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26 percent during the same period. While such inflation has strained the food budgets of many families regardless of their financial status, the higher cost of healthy foods often puts them entirely beyond the monetary means of many lower-income people.
While unhealthy eating may be economically cheaper in the short-term, the consequences of long-term constrained access to healthy foods is one of the main reasons that ethnic minority and low-income populations suffer from statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population.
Whatever their age, obesity puts people at a greater risk for serious, even fatal health disorders (particularly coronary heart disease and diabetes, the first and seventh leading causes of death in the US respectively):
The incidence of diabetes among US adults doubled between 1996 and 2007, and “type 2 diabetes” (a variant of the disease that is often caused by obesity) may account for 90 to 95 percent of these cases. [Only twenty years ago, type 2 diabetes was virtually unknown among people under 40 years old, but in the past decade it has increased tenfold among adolescents (mirroring this age group’s escalating obesity rates). While the incidence of type 2 diabetes has risen across demographic lines in recent years, the greatest increases have occurred among black and brown communities. The highest rates of escalation have been identified in Native American youth and African-Americans and Latinos of all age groups, with these groups suffering disproportionately higher rates of type 2 diabetes compared to whites. These are also the groups most likely to live in food deserts, and researchers have established a strong correlation between food insecurity and increased diabetes rates. One study of Chicago neighborhoods found the death rate from diabetes in food deserts to be twice that of areas offering access to grocery stores, while another conducted in California found that adults ages 50 and over from black and brown communities had double the diabetes rate of whites from the same age demographic. Researchers explain this disparity by emphasizing that the high-calorie foods most readily available in food deserts put residents living in these areas at greater risk for diabetes in the first place, and that having restricted access to healthy foods also makes it harder for them to manage diabetes once they are diagnosed.
Heart disease causes more than 2.4 million deaths in the US every year. One of the main causes of cardiovascular disease is a diet high in unhealthy fats and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol —typified by the types of fare commonly available in food deserts. Just as African-Americans are statistically more likely than other populations to live in food deserts, heart disease kills more blacks every year than whites (despite the fact that whites make up almost 80 percent of the total US populace, and blacks comprise slightly more than 13 percent).Even children and adolescents living in food deserts are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease (both now and when they reach adulthood) due to the increased prevalence of obesity in those communities.