Food Deserts


Not that long ago, the woman who cares for my 94-year old grandmother had a terrible health scare—well more than just a scare, she had unexpected brain surgery and a hospital stay that lasted one month. As we are quite close, I went to visit her as often as I could during her hospital stay in Westchester County, a seemingly opulent suburb located not that far outside of New York City. Prior to my first foray, she asked me to p-l-e-a-s-e bring her some food—a love for good eats is what we have always had in common. As my trip from home to the hospital was roughly 2 ½ hours, my plan was to wait to get her food nearby. But as I was en route, I remembered that this particular hospital is in “nowheresville” with few, if any, food operations in the vicinity. And I surely couldn’t trust that the hospital would have any healthy concessions for me to choose from. So, I picked up a fresh salad, bean soup and a handmade sandwich near home and was on my way.

Have you ever heard of a food desert? By definition, it is a district with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. These districts typically contain many fast food restaurants and convenience stores (Wikipedia). And, quite astonishing is the fact that these food deserts can exist in and around some of the biggest cities in our nation. Apparently the top nine food deserts in this country include: New Orleans; Chicago; Atlanta; Memphis; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Detroit; New York City; and Camden, NJ.

At first glance, thinking any of the above cities as a dry land for dining, seems absurd, however I recall being in California several years ago with my family and as we were driving along the off-the-beaten path highway, to my left and right were strip malls of fast food chains and beaten down bodegas. I ran out of snacks, my kids were both hungry but there was nowhere to stop.

Do you live in a food desert? According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), identifying food deserts is not an exact science. The USDA Economic Research Service devised a Food Environment Atlas whose objective is to assemble statistics on food environment indicators to stimulate research on the determinants of food choices and diet quality; and to provide a spatial overview of a community's ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so. In laypersons terms, the research is underway on this troublesome matter.

Being hyper-aware of food access is my job as it greatly impacts health. According to the CDC, “Many scientific studies have suggested that food deserts may negatively affect health outcomes, but more research is needed to determine how access influences the types of foods consumers purchase and eat. Some researchers believe a link exists between access to affordable nutritious foods and the intake of those foods.”

Clearly food access is a problem even in some of the largest cities in this country. Many organizations are tirelessly working to provide un-biased information on this topic like Food Desert and others are in the field making a difference daily like The Food Trust and Just Food.

Never take access to food for granted. Nor assume that when traveling, you will find healthy eats (a decent smart phone app to help you find food on the road is Where). If you live in a food dessert, planning ahead will make all the difference in how you nourish yourself and your family.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!