America prides itself on its moniker, "The Land of Opportunity." Since its foundation, the United States has made strides to become a country where anyone can achieve the American Dream through hard work and perseverance. Yet poverty is still a huge problem in the US, with millions of people living without access to a grocery store or other place to purchase fresh and nutritious produce. These areas, called food deserts, are a problem that contribute to poverty and obesity. Major food companies have a responsibility to help underserved citizens, but it is not one they are upholding.
Food deserts, as classified by the US Department of Agriculture, are low-income urban areas where a grocery store is a mile or more away, and low-income rural areas where any store with fresh produce is 10 or more miles away (1). Many city dwellers who don’t have cars are resigned to rely on family and friends for transportation to get groceries. As a last resort, many have to lug their groceries on foot, and choose to opt out on heavier items like fresh meat and produce in order to make their load lighter. The packaged food that most low-income residents have access to are high in calories, fat, and preservatives, further worsening the obesity epidemic in America.
In 2011, Michelle Obama released a nationwide plan to open up over 1,500 grocery stores and supermarkets in food desert areas. If achieved, these new stores would create thousands of jobs and serve nearly 9.5 million people in need of access to fresh produce (2). Companies who made this commitment included Walmart, Walgreens, and several local grocery store chains. Unfortunately, the plan hasn’t lived up to its own standards. Many grocery stores are hesitant to open up in food deserts for several reasons: They would have to sell produce at a discounted price, employees would require extra safety training due to neighborhood crime rates, and it's unlikely that the stores would get business from customers who did not live in a food desert because of location. Since 2011, 2,434 grocery stores have been built in America, but only 250 of them were in food desert areas. This means that only about 8% of the more than 18 million people living in food deserts were given new access to fresh produce (3). 6.5 million of food desert inhabitants are children, and for many of them, the majority of food they receive is from school lunches. This means that these children are going to bed -- and going to school -- hungry.
“At 6 a.m., I gotta get my kids up, grab my things. Sometimes I grab a sandwich, sometimes I grab nothing,” explains one New York City resident (4). Due to the fact that most people earning low-income are working 2 or more jobs at a time, many find themselves lacking the time to get to these far away grocery stores.
Cities facing fresh food shortages have come up with some creative solutions. A program based in St. Louis called the MetroMarket has started a food truck program, where a renovated bus full of fresh meat, fish, vegetables and other produce visits low-income neighborhoods that don’t have access to a grocery store, where customers are charged by a pay scale. In addition to the food, MetroMarket offers cooking-lessons and food preparation tips on-site, so consumers know how to use the food they’re buying (5). Corporate food chains can do their part by sponsoring these food trucks and starting membership programs similar to Sam’s Club or Costco.
There has also been an increase in local corner stores and convenience stores selling more fresh food such as prepackaged salad and bananas. However, these efforts are not likely to be enough to eradicate food deserts. These companies that promised to build new grocery stores in 2011 need to uphold their side of the contract, for the sake of hungry Americans everywhere.
1. "Agriculture Marketing Service - Creating Access to Healthy, Affordable Food." United States Department of Agriculture.
2. "First Lady Michelle Obama Announces Nationwide Commitments to Provide Millions of People Access to Healthy, Affordable Food in Underserved Communities. The White House.
3. Danovich, Tove. "Reporting Live From a 'Food Desert' | Civil Eats." Civil Eats.
4. Joiner, Robert. "To Offset Loss of Grocery Stores, City Tries Alternate Tactics." St. Louis Public Radio.