Wednesday, August 15th 2018

Where’s the Vege? Food Deserts and the Urban Poor

Last week, we wrote about sin taxes on junk food and suggested that the proposed tax is regressive. And, it is. It will disproportionally affect individuals of lesser socio-economic status. It is a perverse irony that the individuals who need access to healthy food at low prices are the ones faced with no options but to purchase highly processed food at a corner convenience store or local fast food joint.

Commenting on a Washington Post article, Joshua Bardwell wrote: “When it comes to food, there’s not much to argue about. You’ve gotta eat. If you don’t live close to a grocery store and you don’t own a vehicle, your choices are pretty limited.”

And, that phenomenon is more and more common for individuals of limited means living in poor urban neighborhoods. The term ‘food desert’ was coined more than a decade ago in Great Britain, where it was used to describe the phenomenon of supermarkets withdrawing from cities to build larger stores on the outskirts. In the U.S., a similar trend has developed. It is increasingly difficult to find an urban supermarket as more and more stores move to the suburbs and construct big-box stores.

This corporate practice, which causes gaps in food access, has been closely correlated with diet-related diseases such as cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Healthy foods are also more expensive and less available in poor areas. Simultaneously, there is a lower prevalence of independently owned grocery stores in low-wealth and predominantly Black neighborhoods and a greater proportion of households without access to private transportation in these neighborhoods. So, can you imagine if states now passed a sin tax on junk food?

Several years ago, a study was published in a public health journal, which compared supermarkets, neighborhood groceries, convenience stores, and health food stores in San Diego, CA. The study found that supermarkets had twice the average number of ‘heart-healthy’ foods as compared to neighborhood grocery stores. That proportion doubled when a supermarket was compared to convenience stores.

So, if cost is the most significant predictor of dietary choices, as some studies suggest, then finding available and affordable healthy food is especially difficult for the urban poor. Some of you might suggest that these individuals form urban farm cooperatives, or organize farmers markets in urban neighborhoods, or even travel afield to suburban neighborhoods.

But would I be a bleeding heart liberal if I suggest that the absence of healthy foods in urban areas is a public policy problem? How do we address this problem and encourage the placement of healthy foods in these areas? GOOD chronicles one method: education. But is that the only solution? Should we start to look outside of the traditional store model? After all, grocery stores, convenience stores and bodegas run on a shoe-string profit margin and keeping healthy food stocked on its shelves may deplete those margins further. What proposals have you heard about or have seen implemented that would allow the urban poor access to affordable, healthy food options?

Posted by Krystyna on March 24, 2010 at 12:54pm.

2 Responses to “Where’s the Vege? Food Deserts and the Urban Poor”

  1. avatar Joshua says:

    But would I be a bleeding heart liberal if I suggest that the absence of healthy foods in urban areas is a public policy problem?

    The primary public policy problem, IMO, is food subsidies for products like corn, soy, and beef. This is why a McDonald’s hamburger is cheaper than a salad composed of fresh ingredients bought at the store. This is one reason why poor people are more likely to eat fast food than they are to eat fresh vegetables and fruits. If you want to improve the eating habits of poor people in urban areas, start by shifting food subsidies from corn, soy, and beef, to fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Or get rid of the subsidies entirely and let things be priced at their market value. Whoah. Now there’s a radical idea.

  2. avatar Krystyna says:

    Joshua, I would tend to agree with you.

    However, a story I recently read on Grist. com (Here is the link: suggests that the answer might be more complicated than merely shifting food subsidies to highly-nutritious and fresh fruits and vegetables.

    IMHO, nutrition education and some basic cooking demos combined with farmer’s markets in urban areas may do more to encourage healthier eating and consumption habits than a shift in subsidy.

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