Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Food For Thought

Editor's Note: The importance of access to fresh fruits and vegetables and the impact of food deserts on the health of Americans is the subject of this week's excerpt from Are We There Yet?

Healthy food is as important as exercise to improving the health of Americans. For many Americans, a fast food outlet is easier to get to than a market selling fresh produce, and a child’s meal costs less than broccoli and carrots — largely the result of federal subsidies for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that are the building blocks of a fast food meal. (The corn provides cheap sugar and the soybeans cheap fat.) As a result, more and more communities are exploring ways to make it easier and cheaper for people to get good food — from urban farms and rooftop gardens, to convenience stores offering fresh produce and mobile food trucks selling organic collard greens, mangos and heirloom tomatoes.

“Food access” has become a huge issue, and the term “food deserts” has been used to describe the 10 percent of U.S. neighborhoods where residents cannot walk to buy an apple, and must travel long distances to find a supermarket. Communities that include grocery stores are more complete, and 95 percent of all opportunity areas are located within a mile of a supermarket, proving again that when trying to create complete communities, opportunity areas are a good place to start. See chart on previous page: Food access in opportunity areas.

Food access in Opportunity AreasMany food deserts are in lower-income communities where people may not own cars and have few alternatives to eating fast food or shopping at a convenience store — and these tend to be neighborhoods with higher rates of diabetes and obesity. In Chicago, food deserts have become such a problem that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made it his goal to ensure everyone living in a low-income neighborhood can find nearby stores selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

The South generally does not do a good job of providing access to healthy food relative to the rest of the U.S. This is where low-income people and those without cars have to travel the furthest. Reconnecting America looked at U.S. Department of Agriculture data and found that regions in New Jersey, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia all make the Top 10 worst list. See list above: Top 10 worst regions for food access.

A 2012 story in the New York Times Magazine depicts the health crisis in rural Mississippi, a state where a black man’s life expectancy is lower than the average American’s life expectancy was in 1960, where 69 percent of adults are obese or overweight, a quarter of all households don’t have access to healthy food, and getting to a grocery store can involve driving 30 miles. “In one of the country’s most fertile regions, people sometimes have to shop for their groceries at the gas station,” Suzy Hansen writes. “Consequently, Mississippians are dying from diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure and asthma . . . . in the 1960s people starved, and today they die from food.”

Top10 worst regions for food access

More Blog Posts In This Series