By Contributing Writer; Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
A "food desert" is defined as a geographic area where access to affordable, healthy food options - especially fresh fruits and vegetables- is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within easy traveling distance. According to a report prepared for by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 19 million people in the US reside in a food desert, with 2.5 million of them residing in Massachusetts. In urban areas, access to public transportation can help residents overcome the difficulties posed by distance, but economic forces have driven grocery stores out of many cities in recent years, making them few and far between and 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 BIPOC 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 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.
Communities that are located in food deserts are often overlooked when relying on data collected by the US government. Part of the problem is how the US government’s Industry Classification System categorizes retail outlets that sell food. According to the NAICS code, small corner grocery stores are statistically lumped together with supermarkets, such as Safeway, Whole Foods Market, etc. In other words, a community with no supermarket and two corner grocery stores that offer liquor and food would be counted as having two retail food outlets even though the food offered may be extremely limited and consist mainly of junk food.
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.
To address this problem locally, many communities have started mobile farmers’ markets. The Amherst Mobile Market was started in the summer of 2020. It makes affordable produce available within walking distance of residents who would otherwise struggle to access healthy food. Additionally, it allows low income and BIPOC community members to retain agency over their decision making. Challenges around food access in Amherst are always extant for some but most people don’t know nearly all of Amherst's census tracts are designated as food deserts by the USDA. Residents without vehicles represent 11% of Amherst's population and it can take over two hours to get to and from the grocery store by bus. Over 2 dozen residents, all residing in food deserts, participated in the planning process and the market employed 14 Amherst residents in 202 and 2021. There are over a dozen local small farms participating and for $5 a week, customers get a 6 item ‘farmshare’. The cost of which is reimbursable through the Healthy Incentives Program, if the SNAP benefit is used.
Food insecurity and food deserts are two very real problems facing far too many people today. Fortunately, through continued innovations of programs like the Healthy Incentives Program and the Amherst Mobile Market, and LOCAL outlets like the Amherst Farmers' Market, it’s one that’s being addressed.
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