This holiday season especially, we should take the time to show how appreciative we are—especially when many people across the country don’t have access to basic necessities like food.
If you haven’t heard the phrase before, food deserts are areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or non-existent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance, as defined by the Food Empowerment Project. Lower income families have access to fewer supermarkets, which largely affects urban and rural areas across the country. These shoppers then rely on readily available, less nutritious food, like items that can be found at gas stations and convenience stores. In rural areas that do have grocery stores, these prices are often higher because stores are smaller with higher product costs per unit.
Additional food distribution challenges are difficult to combat, with fresh food and produce not readily available. In a report 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. Oftentimes, the residents of these neighborhoods have limited access to transportation and subsequently limited access to healthy foods. According to a 2012 study, Black people are “2.49 times and Latinos are 1.38 times more likely than Whites to live in neighborhoods without access to a full-service grocery store.” BIPOC continue to live in the most under-resourced communities that are intentionally disinvested in. Because of this, diet-related diseases, like diabetes and obesity, disproportionately affect these communities.
So how would a change in resources affect these communities? Food retail helps bring jobs to the community, helps to revitalize the neighborhood with new business and new customers, and helps to prevent diet-related diseases. For residents of these areas that are already taking on the financial stressors and pressure of their everyday life, they are often also faced with health-related expenses and minimal options for accessible job opportunities.
Now that you have an idea of the presence and severity of food deserts, continue below and learn how you can help areas impacted by them.
1.Support small grocers
It’s vital to support the small grocers in underserved communities. The more successful the small stores become, the greater opportunity they have to expand and offer products and services to a greater number of communities. Thriving local grocers can capture local dollars and reinvest them in these same neighborhoods leading to greater economic development.
2.Work for Instacart and other delivery services
One solution for the residents in these afflicted neighborhoods is to order their groceries to be delivered. I live in Roseland, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. This community qualifies as a food desert. I get fresh groceries through Instacart delivery from nearby neighborhoods and through my weekly Imperfect Foods delivery, helping to reduce food waste. If you have time and a vehicle, work for Instacart in the areas that experience food deserts. Not only do these services assist residents who lack transportation, they also assist residents with various mobility issues.
3.Help to ensure delivery services cater to all areas
Meal delivery services are very convenient, but many of them don’t cater to the areas that need them most. Whether it’s third party delivery services (like GrubHub, DoorDash, or Postmates) or larger chains, finding companies that provide meals to the neighborhoods that need them is few and far between. Even the third party companies that deliver to these neighborhoods only have unhealthy options from the restaurants in the area.
Expanding the delivery radius is key. If enough customers voice their concerns, these companies will take notice and make the much needed changes.
4.Start a food pantry or partner with one
In many neighborhoods, there are food pantries that provide free or discounted grocery items to the residents of the area. Usually these are part of a church or other organization. You can partner with these groups and donate your time or money to support them in their continued effort to bring food to all who need it. You could also start a food pantry of your own if you know of a neighborhood in need.
5. Develop food waste plans
For restaurants, event venues, and any space that serves food, I encourage you to develop a food waste plan that involves regular donations of leftover food to areas and neighborhoods in need. Instead of throwing out pounds of food each evening, partner with an organization that could store and distribute the food instead.
I reached out to my colleague Lauren Draftz to gain a more expert opinion. Lauren has her MPH in Social Epidemiology and focused on both food insecurity and adolescent health while earning her degree. She took a gap year before her Masters degree to do an AmeriCorps year of service with a food pantry, and then interned for Feeding America’s Research Department during the last year of her Masters program.
In addition to the suggestions I provide above, Lauren thinks it’s important to cater the solution to the specific community. Mobile markets and mobile food pantries allow for greater accessibility with minimal overhead costs and is often a viable short term solution. A longer term solution is opening food co-ops with urban farms and community gardens to help supplement products. She’s also seen a push for e-pantries, ordering goods and groceries online that can be picked up from a food pantry.
Whether you’re ready to do your part on a smaller scale or take a large leap into helping resolve this national crisis, do what you can to help eliminate food deserts this holiday season.