Addressing the Problem of American Food Deserts

When many Americans think about summer, they think of holiday barbeques, sweet summer corn and ice-cream cones. What many forget—or simply don’t know—is that 1 in 8 people in the United States struggles with hunger. Among children, the number is even higher: 1 in 6 American children are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and healthy food. Children who don’t get enough food face a myriad of problems from trouble focusing in the classroom, to developmental impairments in language and motor skills, to health problems like anemia and asthma. Obesity is an issue as well, since the most affordable food people have access to tend to be processed and high in fat, sugar, and salt.

The problem is worse in the summer. At least during the school year, public schools provide free lunches and often breakfasts. Some children who live in poverty depend on that food for their main meal of the day. When school is out, that meal disappears. According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, “Twenty-two million children receive free or reduced-cost lunches during the school year, but during the summer months, only 3.9 million continue to have access to those subsidized meals.”

Let’s look at our nation’s capital as an example. The percentage of people who struggle with hunger in Washington, DC matches the national average but the number of children in this category is slightly higher (1 in 5). According to a study by the DC Policy Center in 2017, the problem is a combination of poverty and lack of available transportation to sources of affordable food. The study found that 11 percent of the city (by area) is in food deserts, defined as geographic areas where people have limited access to healthy food. Unsurprisingly, the food deserts in DC, as in many locales, are overwhelming located in the poorest sections of the city, Wards 7 and 8. The only section with no food deserts is Ward 3, the area with the highest median income.

In 2017, Washington City Paper reported that Ward 8 had just one full-service grocery store for its almost 80,000 residents, while Ward 7 had two. Ward 3, in contrast, boasted eleven grocery stores to serve about the same number of people. In an attempt to address the problem, a few years ago the city made a deal with Walmart to open several stores throughout the city, including one in an underserved area. After building two stores in the affluent areas in 2016, Walmart pulled out of the deal to build a store in the neighborhood that needed it most, citing profitability concerns.

There are some reasons to hope. Good Food Markets, a mission-driven DC grocery dedicated to developing retail solutions that work in food desert communities, already has one store in an underserved neighborhood and plans to open another in Ward 8 in the Spring. Philip Sambol, director of partnerships for Good Food, points out that there are systemic racial components to the food desert problem. “That low-income residents have been segregated into certain areas is a sad legacy of our racist redline housing policies—the clustering of affordable housing and voucher residents in certain communities have created an economic ghetto. And the way we’ve segregated our society around class and income equates strongly to race in the US.”

Good Food works to address issues of poverty and food insecurity not only by opening stores in food deserts but also by creating workforce development programs in cooperation with local and federal governments to support local residents. Sambol says neighborhood residents have “a lot of capacity, skill, and talent but not a lot of opportunity.”

Other local organizations also work to get healthy food to communities without full-service groceries. DC Central Kitchen, for instance, recycles food from around the city both to provide thousands of meals to residents in need as well as to offer workforce training for unemployed adults. Addressing food deserts, their Healthy Corners program brings fresh produce and healthy snacks to the corner stores where people who don’t have access to grocery stores often purchase much of their food.

Of course, food deserts and the issues that cause them are not limited to Washington, DC or even to major cities. According to Feeding America, every community and congressional district across the country sees people suffering from food insecurity and some of the counties with the highest levels of hunger are in rural communities.

Look around your own community for the people who may be hungry. And this summer, support the local organizations that are helping people gain access to healthy, affordable food where you live.