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Food deserts: Where economic justice and public health collide

March 10, 2017

New York has every type of food you can imagine: burritos, dim sum, salads, burgers, pasta, bagels, and a million other options. As a young professional, it can be tough to find time to cook healthy food at home rather than grabbing something on the go. However, for many of our neighbors, even finding healthy and affordable options for themselves and their families is a challenge.


While shamefully hunger is still a problem in NYC and across the country, I wanted to focus on the lesser known but more prevalent issue of food deserts. Food deserts are areas that lack healthy and affordable options for their residents. Food deserts sit at the intersection of poverty, economic welfare, and public health.


To see this intersection, let’s look at an example. Sheila lives in a neighborhood where the nearest full supermarket is two miles away. There are several fast food options on the main street and a convenience store where she can buy some groceries, but they rarely have much fresh food. She doesn’t own a car, and the bus from her work to the supermarket takes 30 minutes and then another 30 minutes to get home. Since she works two jobs, she is rarely able to pick up groceries for her family of five. When she is working on the weekends, her brother brings over fast food for the kids. Her kids have not tried many fruits and vegetables, but know they can cheaply buy fried food and soda much more easily.


Hopefully the above example illustrates how lack of access to healthy and affordable food can create a vicious cycle that leads to bad eating habits and poorer health. The issue is strongly tied to economic status as well. Think about where the nearest Whole Foods is in your area. Think about where you most often find places with labels of “artisanal” and “organic.” Many low-income communities do not have a true supermarket. Further complicating the issue, many residents have to walk or take public transportation to pick up food.


Unfortunately, there is not an easy solution to addressing food deserts, but there are several interesting strategies that combined could go a long way to securing healthy and affordable food for all. On a governmental level, cities can incentivize supermarkets that provide fresh food to open in underserved neighborhoods. On a local level, mobile markets are an effective way of providing fresh food to food deserts. These markets are run by awesome organizations like City Harvest and bring thousands of pounds of fresh food to communities across the city. Another community based approach is the creation of cooperatives. These could function in a similar way to CSAs and allow for communities to purchase fresh food in bulk. The food can then be claimed at a convenient distribution center in the neighborhood.


Reducing the number of food deserts in New York will improve the health and quality of life of thousands of our neighbors. If you want to get involved in the effort, join The Active Citizen and City Harvest to staff a mobile market. We have several opportunities throughout the year to volunteer and it’s a great way to make new friends, meet your neighbors, and address a major social justice issue in our communities.



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