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Food Deserts, Disease and the Future of Public Health

This article was written by Erica Barnett in October 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Food%20Deserts.jpg The urban "food desert," a neighborhood in which residents typically must travel twice as far to reach the closest supermarket or other mainstream grocer as people in better appointed neighborhoods, is not just a problem of social or economic justice; it's about public health as well. Faced with a lengthy trek to stock the kitchen with fresh food, many residents of food deserts instead rely on "fringe" retailers -- convenience stores, liquor stores, gas stations, and drug stores -- to provide basic food items. The result is a serious nutrition gap between those who live in areas of plenty and those who lack access to the basics. And poor nutrition leads to poor health and premature death.

In Detroit, Michigan, for example, more than half the city's 1,000-plus food retailers are fringe locations that offer little or nothing in the way of fresh or healthy food. According to a study commissioned by the La Salle Bank (via), more than half a million Detroit residents -- more, that is, than half the city's population -- live without easy access to fresh, affordable food. La Salle's survey found that for every 100 people living in the neighborhoods with the worst access to healthy food, a collective 64 years of life were lost. This higher rates of premature death from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and other diet-related diseases held true even after adjusting for racial and socioeconomic factors.

The problem isn't confined to blighted urban areas. In the Western states, 44 percent of the average county’s population has poor access to grocery stores; in the Midwest, 34 percent; in the South, 24 percent; in the Northeast, just 10 percent. Food deserts are even cropping up in suburbia, as people move onto former farmland and find themselves many miles distant from the makings of a nutritious meal. The impact on suburban residents, however, is often eased by the easy highway access provided to most suburbs, as well as the means to own the car that will get them to the grocery store down the road. Urban and rural food deserts, by contrast, can be similar in having little or no easy access to mass transit, leaving poorer residents -- who may lack the means to own a car -- with fewer options for getting to a market.

One possible way to cut the high rates of disease in food deserts is an outright ban on fast food restaurants, which tend to proliferate in areas where other food options are limited. In Los Angeles, city officials are considering a two-year moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South LA, the part of town with the highest concentration of fast food restaurants-- and an obesity rate that's 50 percent higher than the rest of the city.

But to truly improve public health, such a move needs to be coupled with creating easy access to healthy food . Financial incentives to supermarkets encourage them to move into food deserts, and can also facilitate economic renewal: according to one study, every dollar spent on supermarket construction and operations generates $1.50 in economic activity. Incentives for neighborhood farmers markets -- such as those offered in blighted areas by the Project for Public Spaces -- can help these healthy food purveyors get started in communities where they traditionally have not thrived, and keep going long enough to establish themselves.

Microfarms on underutilized urban land are another option for providing low-cost, nutritious food to urban communities. As we've written before, urbanites around the United States have created incredible farms on small pieces of land. It's a concept Brooklyn resident and urban farmer Manny Howard has taken to its logical extreme by adding poultry and rabbit husbandry to his backyard farm -- revealing both the potential of urban farming and its limitations. In another example linked more firmly to social justice, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) operates a two-acre city farm on an abandoned downtown lot.

Image: Farmers market in downtown Los Altos, Calif. Credit: Emily Gertz.

How to Fertilize Urban Food Deserts is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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