Food Deserts: Where The Food Isn't

February 18, 2009

With incoming Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack declaring his agency will represent "eaters" as well as farmers, food policy may be slated for a top-to-bottom makeover. Whether it's potato chips from a high-priced ghetto convenience store, or fry bread on the Navajo reservation (a traditional food born of historic deprivation) — many Americans are trapped in diets that can harm their health.

How hard is it for people in your region to go grocery shopping? In particular, can they easily, regularly, and affordably buy nutritious food? Or do they mainly have to rely on fast-food and convenience stores?

"Food deserts" (areas lacking easy access to supermarkets, farmers' markets, or greengrocers selling affordable produce, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, rice, and other staple foods) can signal larger long-term problems, including environmental ones. In a food desert, significant segments of the local population — whether defined by geography, income, or transportation time/access — cannot easily obtain fresh, nutritious food. That's a food security risk.

Over time, environmental problems such as drought, groundwater depletion, and climate change can significantly curtail food production and raise food costs. In turn, this can exacerbate public health problems such as obesity and malnutrition, and eventually lead to the scary situation of people going hungry. Identifying and monitoring local food deserts can spot the "canary in the coal mine" that can help communities, businesses, policymakers, and nonprofits enhance food security and be more equipped to weather environmental and economic uncertainty.

On Feb. 1, 2008, Washington Business Journal reported on research from several Washington, DC-based organizations on local food deserts.

This DC-based nonprofit is monitoring food deserts locally and nationally: Food Research and Action Center. Press: Jennifer Adach, 202-986-2200 x3018; or Ellen Vollinger, 202-986-2200 x3016.

On Feb. 11, 2009, CBS4 reported on food deserts in Denver. This story mentioned the work of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, which offers grants and resources to promote the sale of healthy, fresh, affordable foods in small, neighborhood stores in underserved communities across the US. HCSN comprises several food-focused nonprofits, listed here with contact info.

Mapping out local food deserts can be an interesting and practical way to engage your community in an ongoing discussion about an important part of their daily lives. It can also provide compelling context to reporting on related environmental issues — not just environmental problems, but solutions such as urban gardens and local food production, water conservation, zoning, involving food retailers in economic development efforts, and transit planning. And it can also make good use of popular mobile and online communication options.

Interactive maps can play a key role here. A simple Google map is probably the easiest way to start. Map the locations of local grocery stores that offer a healthy selection of nutritious food, and compare that to census and transit info. Invite your readers to submit information via voice mail, e-mail, and text message about where they buy food, how convenient that errand is, and whether nutritious options are available and affordable. Space the questions out over time, so that every week (or couple of weeks) you're gathering another type of structured data — fodder for another segment of your story, while building a useful database.

Also, ask local food producers where their food is going: How much gets distributed locally? County and state agriculture extension offices, and land grant universities, can be especially helpful on this front.