One of the major factors in the health status of individuals is availability and affordability of fresh, healthy food. In evaluating our country as a whole, I was very surprised to find out how many food deserts we have in this country. A food desert is defined by the USDA to be a low-income community where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store (ERS). To qualify as a low income community it must either have a poverty rate of over 20% or the median family income must be at or below 80% of the area median family income. Additionally low access is defined as having 500 people and/or 33% of the community more than a mile away from a supermarket or in rural communities more than 10miles away (ERS). Being from a small farming town it has never really occurred to me that being a few miles away from a grocery store would be so problematic, because growing up my house was 10miles away from entering the town so that distance doesn’t seem like it should be an issue. However, in my rural community, everyone that I knew that lived out of a walking friendly distance from a grocery store had access to at least some kind of vehicle, even if it was just a dingy old farm vehicle. I now realize how quickly it can become a health problem if access to a vehicle was compromised in this rural setting. In many rural communities there is no established public transportation to transfer residents to a grocery store. Most people would choose the available unhealthy food such as a nearby fast food restaurant than try to bum a ride off of a friend to the grocery store.
There are many factors that can affect a communities overall health status, and being a food desert has the potential to create many problems. Many people are very busy and low on available food budget money; therefore it is much easier to pick menu items off the value menu at a fast food restaurant on a family member’s way home. This tends to be very calorie dense, nutrient low foods that have a negative effect on a person’s health status if this type of food is consumed regularly. Another problem to consider is that by developing a habit of eating unhealthy, unbalanced diets these families have to overcome these unhealthy habits when/if the community raises access to supermarkets or grocery stores. These communities would most likely benefit from some sort of educational program once they had access so they would have the knowledge and the tools necessary to improve their health status. The First Lady’s initiative Let’s Move! included the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which has funds dedicated to expanding the availability of nutritious food to food deserts/low-income communities by developing and equipping grocery stores, farmers markets, etc. with fresh and healthy food (ERS). So hopefully in the next few years we will be able to see a decrease in food deserts across the nation and a rise in more balanced, healthy communities.
Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Desert Locator. 2012, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator.aspx