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Do You Live in a Food Desert?

Mother holding a toddler in one arm and a grocery bag in the other.By Hima Patel, Health Policy Intern, Office of Chief Medical Officer

You and your children are busier than ever before. You drop your kids off at school, go to work and come home from a long day only to drive from place to place to take your children to their many after school activities. Among all of this hustle and bustle, you hardly have time to think about what to eat. But you understand that a healthy, well-balanced meal will benefit the active lives of you and your family, and stop by the local grocery store to pick up some fresh veggies and lean meats.

You try to cook nutritious meals at home as often as you can, knowing that the time around the dinner table will allow you all to slow down and catch up, while cementing healthy eating habits for your children that will last a lifetime. Fruits, vegetables, skim milk, smaller portions and smarter snacking choices are all in the back of your mind for your family’s health, as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has promoted.

But not everyone has access to grocery stores and fresh produce. Many in the United States live in what is known as a food desert, an area that lacks access to affordable sources of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that comprise a healthy, well balanced diet. The term “food desert” refers to the idea that grocery stores that carry healthier foods are far away or inaccessible to many residents. In fact, 2.3 million Americans live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle, which fits the definition of an urban food desert. Rural food deserts occur in areas where grocery stores with affordable healthy foods are more than five miles away. The term food desert also includes areas where the goods are priced too high for people to purchase within their budget. Food deserts, then, are a health disparity coming from the built environment — the manmade landscapes and neighborhoods — that limit a family’s abilities to improve their health.

In a Report to Congress, research found that food deserts often overlap with low-income and racial/ethnic minority neighborhoods, putting this segment of the population at higher risk for adverse health outcomes, like obesity or diabetes. Studies have also shown that poor minority neighborhoods tend to have more advertisements for unhealthy products such as tobacco and alcohol.  Additionally, there are fewer pharmacies with fewer medications and fewer grocery stores that have affordable, healthy food choices. When the closest source of affordable food is a fast food chain or a corner convenience store, these will be the go-to for many families’ meals.

After this Report to Congress brought to light the severity of the food desert issue, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) was born as a part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. HFFI works through funding from the U.S. Department of Treasury and the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) Office of Community Services (OCS). HFFI uses tax credits, grants and technical assistance to promote and finance the development and growth of businesses that aim to improve access to healthier, sustainable foods, boost business growth, and reduce childhood obesity. Community development organizations can apply for HFFI funding that specifically targets the multicultural needs of the community.

In 2011, OCS’s Community Economic Development (CED) awarded HFFI $10 million in annual funds to foster both career development and healthy foods initiatives in communities. Through HFFI, people gain better access to healthier choices. Latino, Native American and Somalian communities are only a few of the many different ethnic niches that HFFI has reached, by granting funds to build culture-specific supermarkets, healthy food centers, farmer’s markets and farm-to-table initiatives.

HFFI strives to promote health equity and reduce health disparities by increasing access to healthier foods, and ideally eliminating food deserts in this nation. Pairing this initiative on a wider scale with the newly passed Agricultural Act of 2014, commonly known as the Farm Bill, the United States is taking strides towards a healthier future. Furthering many existing initiatives, the Farm Bill also calls for $100 million to increase fruit and vegetable purchases, and another $125 million directly for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to make healthier foods more accessible.

For further information about Food Deserts and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, please click here.

A special thanks to Karen Harris, Community Development Program Specialist in OCS.

Last Reviewed: March 18, 2016
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