America’s Food Deserts: Cultivating Self-Sustaining Communities

For many of us, getting fresh ingredients to put together a healthy meal or snack is as simple as stopping at the nearest grocery store. It’s not something we think much about—a quick errand that can be done on the way home from work or after picking the kids up from school. However, for a significant percentage of people across the U.S., having access to fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products isn’t a given. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in so-called “food deserts,” with no easy access to stores that sell fresh, healthy and affordable foods. Instead, these residents are either forced to travel 30-40 minutes to the nearest full-service grocery store—or, more often, to rely on the prepackaged, often high-calorie and low-nutrient offerings from local convenience stores.

In one of the richest nations in the world, both in terms of wealth and innovation, you would think that there would be a simple solution to preventing food deserts—but there is no single cause or solution to combating them. Because many larger food retailers and grocers have been discouraged from opening in both urban and rural communities, this has created a void in the fresh and healthy food offerings available. Given that one of the defining characteristics of food deserts is socio-economic status, people who live in these areas typically have limited options in terms of mobility and budget, and are forced to choose the cheaper, less nutritious options to survive. As processed food prices have dropped by more than 26 percent over the last two decades while the price of fresh food has risen by nearly 75 percent, buying unhealthy foods has become a matter of necessity—not desire. Further, many of the corner stores residents of food deserts have access to do not accept food stamps like larger grocery stores would.

Grocers—big and small—can join the revolution to decrease the prevalence of food deserts in several different ways, and there are some great examples that can be found within local communities. In Southern Los Angeles, a community with few accessible supermarkets, local college students began renovating a corner store and replacing the majority of the processed foods with fruits and vegetables. A hardware store in Cumberland, VA took the same approach with offering fresher and a greater variety of items, but reinvented themselves as a “general store” to better serve their rural community. Lastly, the City Health Department of Baltimore, MD created a program called the “Baltimarket,” a Virtual Supermarket Program where residents can order their groceries online and pick them up at a local school or library. Participants in this program were also able to use their food stamps, and even had the option to place the order themselves or with assistance at the library.

Many national food retailers like Amazon and Google are also jumping on the delivery bandwagon, offering online ordering and free delivery of groceries in an effort to reduce the impact of food deserts. AmazonFresh, available in certain regions of the U.S., offers free same-day and early morning delivery on orders over $35, including fresh grocery and local products. New startups like Instacart are popping up all over the country and utilizing fellow shoppers who may already be at the store. These crowd-sourced grocery delivery services enlist the help of personal shoppers to pick up and deliver fresh groceries from a variety local stores—not necessarily just one specific retailer.

As national retailers, technology startups and even First Lady Michele Obama turn their attention to help underserved communities across the country, not only can they help reduce the size of food deserts, they’ll also be taking a major step toward reducing diabetes and childhood obesity—and creating a healthier America.