Food security is an issue that concerns not only countries with low and middle-income economies, but also high-income economies. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as of 2014 there are 11 million undernourished people living in developed countries (World Hunger Education Service, 2015). Known as urban food insecurity, this problem is largely caused by an unequal distribution of food. Areas in which there is a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food are called food deserts, which often affect locations populated by middle and lower-income citizens. Even in New York City, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, around 1.3 million people go hungry everyday (Segal, 2010). The inability to find accessible healthy, affordable food gives rise to health issues such as obesity and diabetes. In the United States alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that approximately 23.5 million residents live in food deserts, with most of them being middle and lower-income citizens (See Figure 1) (USDA, 2009). Notably, food deserts also affect high-income countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and New Zealand.

Food deserts reflect and worsen the disparity between the upper and lower classes, which is particularly manifested in the health consequences of living in such areas. The Food Research & Action Center finds that wages are inversely related to body mass index and risk of obesity — in other words, people earning lower wages tend to have a higher chance of being obese (FRAC, 2015). This occurs for several reasons: for one, people living in low-income areas typically have to travel a greater distance to find a store that carries healthy food. Moreover, these healthier options tend to be more expensive than less healthy foods with refined grains, added sugars, and fats. Thus, even when healthy foods are available, the cheaper, less healthy  options tend to be the options of choice. This cost disparity between non-nutritious foods and healthy foods is perhaps the most significant contributing factor to urban food insecurity. According to director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition Dr. Drewnowski, as of 2007, a 2,000-calorie diet could have a daily cost of 3.52 USD if it consisted of cheap, non-nutritious foods versus 36.32 USD if it consisted of low-energy, dense foods, such as lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables (Segal, 2009). Because of this, the problem of food deserts cannot simply be addressed with the addition of more grocery stores; pricing of groceries and nutrition education are also critical considerations.

image00Figure 1: A look at the correlation between low-income households and health problems resulting from poor diet (Matson, 2012).

Solutions:

Urban food insecurity is rooted in three main problems: physical distance to healthy food choices, lack of affordability, and lack of understanding on the importance of eating healthy foods. Therefore, a comprehensive solution should address all factors.

One way to address the issues of physical accessibility and affordability is to implement urban farming initiatives. Community gardens, which have already started to  gain traction in various countries, provide access to fresh, local vegetables for a relatively low cost per year. They are effective in reducing the travel distance for people and often simply replace already vacant lots. Governmental action to subsidize the development cost of community gardens would facilitate their creation. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s People’s Garden grant program awards grants to fund the creation of community gardens in areas identified as food deserts. Through this program, the government has managed to support the development of over 2,000 community gardens, consequently enabling 1.8 million kilograms of food to be produced from such gardens. Because the construction cost of community gardens can range based on size, location, and purpose, grant values should be determined on a project-to-project basis with such factors taken into consideration. Yet aside from governmental grants alone, it is important to form groups dedicated toward promoting urban farming (such as the UK’s Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens) in order to encourage people to grow community gardens. This provision of guidance and instruction is valuable in stimulating the development of gardens: a task that individuals living in food deserts might not otherwise attempt. Thus, within five years, an increase in grant programs in conjunction with the formation of groups that provide direction and encouragement should be carried out to increase the prevalence of community gardens, thereby making fresh food more accessible.

It is also important to make healthy foods available to buy at more convenient locations. The transition of moving more nutritious options to accessible stores has been proven to increase the sales of healthy foods in low-income areas. One such example occurred in Minneapolis — based on a survey that indicated 94% of its residents would buy produce if it were sold at convenience stores, the city of Minneapolis implemented a program that requires corner and convenience stores to stock fresh produce (Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, 2012). Through partnerships with wholesalers, these stores were able to obtain the produce at affordable prices. They also worked to enhance the displays for fruits and vegetables at such stores (e.g. displaying bigger signs, making produce visible from the front window) to make the produce more attractive. After collecting information about the effects of these changes for six months, retailers found that their produce sales increased, with residents purchasing fruits and vegetables more often and regularly.

These efforts to increase inventory of fruits and vegetables at local stores should be brought to a wider scale — governmental partnerships with wholesale produce providers, mirroring that of the Minneapolis initiative, would be extremely beneficial in facilitating the availability of produce in food deserts. Therefore, a proposition to increase sales of fresh produce would be to form collaborative networks of wholesalers and retailers. Wholesalers would provide nutritious foods at low prices to retailers, allowing convenient, more frequented stores to stock fresh produce at affordable prices for their customers. In exchange, these wholesalers would gain regular vendors of their produce and see sales increase as a result of the increased affordability. This should also be implemented in conjunction with the development of community gardens — subsidies for fertilizer, plots, and seeds in exchange for produce to be supplied to convenience stores for low prices would allow for low-cost production and distribution of healthier foods, while also eliminating a large transportation cost. Funding from agricultural departments of national governments (such as the USDA in the United States) could provide money for these subsidies, but most of the administrative responsibility should fall under state or city governments, since they can more directly account for the different needs of each governed region. The requirement of produce to be sold at more convenience stores in food desert regions should be accomplished within ten years.

Another crucial aspect in addressing food deserts is that of nutrition education. Increasing awareness on the importance of eating nutritious food has been proven to be particularly effective in changing the diets of lower-income families. Some countries have already began implementing nationwide programs with this very goal; in the U.S. for instance, SNAP-Ed (through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) aims to encourage the consumption of healthier foods through educational programs for children via online resources and school activities. As a result of these educational programs, a study by the USDA found that participants’ daily intake of fruit went up by an average of 0.52 cups (USDA, 2013). Thus, government-sponsored nutrition education campaigns can have a considerable impact in increasing consumption of nutritious foods in food deserts. This, in addition to cheaper and more physically accessible produce, would substantially decrease the deleterious health effects of urban food insecurity.

Conclusion:

The unequal distribution of healthy food in high-income countries is a problem that affects the healths of millions of people. This is primarily due to a lack of availability at convenient locations, high prices in comparison to those of unhealthy foods, and unawareness of the importance of a healthy diet. In order to make food more physically accessible, we promote the development of community gardens, whose creation can be assisted by government grants and urban farming guidance groups. Additionally, the formation of partnerships between vendors and wholesale producers would allow for healthy foods to be sold at lower prices in more convenient locations. We propose requiring local stores in food desert regions to stock produce in order to ensure that low-income residents have access to it. Lastly, the establishment of nutrition education programs that educate residents about health and diet will stimulate the purchase and consumption of healthy foods. Together, these changes aim to decrease the disparity in nutrition consumption.

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Works Cited

American Community Gardening Association (2014). Growing Community Across the U.S. and Canada. Retrieved from https://communitygarden.org/mission/.

Food Research & Action Center (2015). Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Obesity. Retrieved from http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/why-are-low-income-and-food-insecure-people-vulnerable-to-obesity/.

Ghosh-Dastidar, B., Cohen, D., Hunter, J., Zenk, S., Huang, C., Beckman, R., Dubowitz, T. (2014, September 10). Distance to Store, Food Prices, and Obesity in Urban Food Deserts. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4205193/.

Matson, J. (2012, May 1). Food Deserts Leave Many Americans High and Dry. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/high-and-dry-in-the-food/.

Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support (2012, February). Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program. Retrieved from http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@health/documents/webcontent/wms1p-095276.pdf.

Segal, A. (2010). Food Deserts: A Global Crisis in New York City. Retrieved from http://www.consiliencejournal.org/index.php/consilience/article/viewFile/120/33.

United States Department of Agriculture (2009, June). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242675/ap036_1_.pdf.

United States Department of Agriculture (2013, December). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education and Evaluation Study. Retrieved from http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/SNAPEdWaveII_Summary.pdf.

World Hunger Education Service (2015, March 24). 2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm#Number_of_hungry_people_in_the_world.