Food Desert


Overview


Food deserts are defined geographical areas in industrialized countries that lack retail stores with healthy, nutritious options. The lack of subsistence farming and dependence on retail venues to acquire food has aided in the creation of the problem in developed countries. In the United States, the USDA reports much of the research on food deserts. According to the USDA, a food desert is “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store." [1]

  • Low-income communities are defined by their poverty rate and median family income. The community’s poverty rate must exceed 20% and the median family income cannot be greater than 80% of the median family income of the larger community.[2] Low-access communities are defined by the percent of their populations that lives a specified distance from a supermarket or large grocery store. If 500 people or 33% of the population do not have access within the defined spatial limits, the community is considered a food desert.[3]

Health Impact


Geographers and public health researchers dominate the literature on food deserts. The data on population density and nearby food retailers that typify food desert research are gathered using Geographical Informational Systems (GIS), which visually cluster together spatial data points to create or alter maps. Most of the papers published by geographers focus on the use of GIS methodology within food deserts (see [4] [5] [6] ). In contrast, the majority of the food desert public health literature focuses on the demographic characteristics of food deserts and the negative health outcomes associated with living in a food desert. Food deserts are typified by a lack of supermarkets, access to other fresh food sources, and the presence of convenience stores and fast food restaurants that primarily supply high-calorie energy-dense foods with little nutritional value. Lack of access to healthy foods is associated with *food insecurity and *obesity. Obesity is of particular concern because it can contribute to the development of type 2 *diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer and organ failure, illnesses that are also associated with poverty and health disparities.[7] [8] Mental health issues are also associated with obesity, such as anxiety and *depression.[9]


‘Desertification’- Where and Who it Happens To


FoodDesert1.png
Food deserts are typically found in economically disadvantaged rural and urban communities with low socio-economic status indicators. Distinct problems exist in each setting:

In rural settings, not being able to access retail stores that sell healthy foods may be the result of a complete lack of any retail options nearby (within 10 or less miles, according to the USDA standards). Residents of food desert counties are more likely to be rural than their non-food desert counterparts. The reason for the unhealthy food environment found in some rural communities is multi-faceted. As food venues are consolidated into large food outlets (think Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco) some communities are left without supermarkets nearby[10] . This coupled with the transition in rural economies from farming to services based employment exacerbates the obesity problem through increases in poverty rates, lack of physical exercise, and greater travel times to access food, work, and education [11] . The speed of economic and social change in rural communities has created new public health concerns that are beginning to come to light.

In urban settings, the only nearby retail stores (within a mile) may be convenience or corner stores or fast-food establishments that sell processed and nutrient-poor foods, a lack of transportation to access further food venues encourages use of these sources. Similar to issues faced in rural areas, the consolidation of food places can have detrimental effects on urban resident’s food access. In New Haven, Connecticut, researchers document how the closing of one grocery store can adversely affect community food security. [12] Without alternative food sources, communities will continue to be at the mercy of unstable market forces. Food activists call for sustainable food environments that are protected from the opening and closing of retail venues through the addition of farmers markets, co-ops, and community gardens to community landscapes.

How Medical Anthropology Can Contribute


To date, very little anthropological research has been done on food deserts. The majority of the literature on food deserts is published in geography or health journals.

The USDA’s official criterion for food deserts excludes smaller, locally owned retail stores that may sell produce and other alternative food sources, such as farmer markets and community gardens. A major critique of the ‘making’ of food deserts is that their measurement may be misleading, areas that are categorized as food deserts may indeed have more healthy food options than the current classification schema depicts. Using anthropological methods, researchers can begin to develop more accurate pictures of specific food environments. Medical anthropologists are beginning to incorporate public health and geography methodologies into their toolkits: GIS mapping, spatial discourse, social network analysis, and CBPR are being integrated into anthropological research design. Anthropology also has several distinct theoretical contributions to augment these methodologies: cultural understandings of food choice and the social costs of food choice, political economy discourses on food environments, and an understanding of human biological and ecological interactions with food environments.

A Local Approach

Currently, a multidisciplinary student led research team from The University of South Florida is conducting an assets based approach to Sulphur Springs, Florida, an area defined as a food desert. The goals of the project are to:

  • Conduct a literature review on the term “food desert”
  • Use GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to map the area and include information excluded in traditional food desert research- specifically, land available for community gardens
  • Work in partnership with Creating a Healthier Sulphur Springs for Kids (CHSSK), a community based organization working to fight obesity

The team is composed of students from the departments of anthropology, public health, and geography.

Online Resources


Food Desert Article in Anthropology News
http://dev.aaanet.org/news/index.php/2011/10/26/usda-food-desert-demarcation-is-a-starting-point-for-localized-research-and-resolutions/

The USDA's Food Locator
http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html
http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/about.html

Videos


Food Desert Awareness Month Sponsored by the National Center for Public Research
http://www.fooddesert.net/

Michelle Obama Speaks About Food Deserts



Mari Gallagher and Food Deserts at TEDx



Further Reading


Russell, Scott E. and Heidkamp, Partrick C. (2011). ‘Food Desertification’: The loss of a major supermarket in New Haven, Connecticut. Applied Geography, 31(2011): 1197-1209

Walker, Renee E., Keane, Christoper R., and Burke, Jessica G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health and Place, 16(2010): 876-84

Winne, Mark. 2008. Closing the food desert gap: Resetting the table in the land of plenty. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Related Terms


*food insecurity
*obesity
*diabetes mellitus
*depression

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References


  1. ^ Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, "Food Desert Locator." Accessed April 26, 2012.
  2. ^ Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, "Food Desert Locator." Accessed April 26, 2012.
  3. ^ Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, "Food Desert Locator." Accessed April 26, 2012.
  4. ^ McEntee, Jesse and Julian Agyeman. 2010. Towards the development of a GIS method for identifying rural food deserts: Geographic access in Vermont, USA. Applied Geography. 30:165-76.
  5. ^ Philips, Anna Leana. 2011. Making Better Maps of Food Deserts:Neighborhoods with little or no access to healthful food can be located and studied using GIS. American Scientist. May-June: 209-10.
  6. ^ Hallett, Lucius and Dave McDermott. 2011. Quantifying the extent and cost of food deserts in Lawrence, Kansas, USA. Applied Geography. 30:1210-15.
  7. ^ Schafft, Kai, Eric Jensen, and C. Clare Hinrichs. 2009. Food deserts and overweight schoolchildren : Evidence from Pennsylvania. Rural Sociology, 74(2):153-77.
  8. ^ Smith, Chery, and Morton, Lois. 2009. Rural Food Deserts: Low-income Perspectives on Food Access in Minnesota and Iowa. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 41(3):176-87.
  9. ^ Corrigan, Michelle. 2011. Growing what you eat: Developing community gardens in Baltimore, Maryland. Applied Geography. 31:1232-41.
  10. ^ Smith, Chery, and Morton, Lois. 2009. Rural Food Deserts: Low-income Perspectives on Food Access in Minnesota and Iowa. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 41(3):176-87
  11. ^ Schafft, Kai, Eric Jensen, and C. Clare Hinrichs. 2009. Food deserts and overweight schoolchildren : Evidence from Pennsylvania. Rural Sociology, 74(2):153-77
  12. ^ Russell, Scott E. and Heidkamp, Partrick. 2011. ‘Food Desertification’: The loss of a major supermarket in New Haven, Connecticut. Applied Geography, 31(2011):1197-1209