We are what we eat, and—as a nation—we’re not doing very well at deciding what to eat. The evidence suggests that what we eat—and how healthy we are— is influenced by where we can afford to live. All too often, housing that low-income families can afford is in areas where healthy foods are hard to find.
The concept of a “food desert” has now entered the lexicon of public policy—though not yet the Oxford English Dictionary. The 2008 Farm Bill defines a food desert as “an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” In a 2009 report to Congress, the USDA found that 15 percent of Americans living in low-income urban neighborhoods are more than one mile from the nearest supermarket – that’s 7 million people.
To illustrate, consider the District of Columbia, with food deserts in four of its eight wards (see the darker purple areas in the map).
District of Columbia Food Deserts
The problem is worst in Wards 5, 7, and 8, where over two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese and rates of diabetes are in the double digits. These are very poor communities, with at least one in three residents receiving food stamps (renamed SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
One innovative idea for providing healthier food choices to residents of food deserts like these combines the old and the new: mobile farmers’ markets that accept SNAP electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards as payment. This approach is underway in Boston, New York, and other big cities and will be launched this year in DC. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and other farm produce are sold to residents during scheduled weekly visits to the neighborhood by refrigerated vans and other vehicles—even converted school buses. The DC program, offered by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, will also provide nutritional education through local schools and outreach through trusted neighborhood groups.
These efforts deserve attention because they directly address the spatial pattern of urban food deserts. There’s even a behavioral economics angle to this. Like curbside recycling, mobile farmers’ markets make desired behavior conspicuous to other local residents, possibly eliciting greater acceptance and participation.