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Food deserts, hunger and obesity

The United States is known for high rates of obesity, and although obesity is caused by the overconsumption of food, hunger is a major problem in the US as well. These two issues are often found in the same impoverished communities. One factor contributing to hunger and obesity in America are food deserts. Food deserts are areas where community members don’t have ready access to fresh, healthy food. While food deserts may not seem like a pressing concern here on campus, the prevalence of food deserts throughout the Bay Area make them a concern for all Bay Area residents.

Food deserts explain the link between hunger, poverty and obesity in low-income communities. Urban food deserts are often filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores that primarily serve unhealthy food. Although there is nothing wrong with fast food every once in a while, these cheap, convenient, unhealthy options mean that community members are eating fast food more often than not.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as low-income areas where grocery stores and supermarkets are over one mile away. The USDA’s food desert locator shows examples of cities around the Bay Area that have food deserts including parts of: East Palo Alto, Hayward, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Unfortunately, the locator is far from perfect. Currently, Stanford is classified as a food desert because there are no grocery stores within a mile; however the campus is not really a food desert because there is fresh healthy food available at the dining halls around campus.

Urban farms, community gardens and farmers markets have popped up in lower income communities across the country giving people more access to fresh healthy food. In West Oakland, a section of Oakland known for its abundance of liquor stores and lack of grocery stores, there are four urban farms and community markets that have developed since 2007. East Palo Alto has also started an urban farm providing produce to its supporters. While urban farms and farmers’ markets are essential to bringing healthy foods to low income communities, grocery stores and supermarkets are also key to getting rid of food deserts.

There are fewer grocery stores in low-income areas because of the assumption that low-income areas are generally less profitable and that there are higher rates of crime leading to more additional costs. Initiatives like gardens and farmers markets are a step in the right direction, but they aren’t the perfect solution to consistently having healthy food available in low-income areas. Urban farms are negatively impacted by adverse weather, like heat waves, floods and harsh winters. Farmers markets are often only open one or two days a week, and if one is unable to attend on those days, the market is an ineffective option. This why community members in food deserts should pressure their elected officials to fight for grocery stores and supermarkets to come into their neighborhoods.

Some argue that access to healthy foods is not enough to prevent conditions like obesity. These claims arise from studies that assert that low-income people will not necessarily increase their vegetable intake despite increased access. However, not every community responds to increased fruit and vegetable access the same and other studies show that access to healthy food does improve eating patterns. Furthermore, healthy eating habits over time can reduce the prevalence of food related illnesses. Since there is evidence of increased intake of healthy food, there should be a greater push to ensure people in all low income neighborhoods have consistent access to healthy food.

As Stanford students, we have a responsibility to help bring this issue into the light. Just knowing about food deserts is not enough to end them. There are many ways to get involved, from volunteering in community gardens in low-income areas to political engagement calling for more options in these areas. Transforming a food desert into a community with a diverse array of food options will take time but it is necessary for all Americans to have access to healthy food regardless of socioeconomic status.

Contact Asha Brundage-Moore at ashab1 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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