The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Project (have you seen the Beyonce video?), recently developed the Food Desert Locator – an online, interactive map that outlines food deserts in the United States. A light pink overlay designates a food desert, which the HFFI defines as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store."
But let's take the definition one step further. If a food desert is to be defined by barriers which restrict access to healthy foods, then maybe the conventional food industry is the largest food desert of all. For proof, just look to the the center aisles of many grocery and convenient stores.
With this expanded definition in mind, my bet is that food deserts (both in terms of the HFFI's definition and my interpretation) are far more numerous than what's pictured on the map.
What "low access" means
Can you imagine driving 10 miles to a grocery store only to be greeted with no real food as far as the eye can see? Or walking one mile in a city, for those who don't have cars?
The HFFI defines low access to a healthy food retail outlet as just that – more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas, and 10 miles for rural areas. I'm fortunate to live in Denver, Colo., and work in Boulder, two towns with farmer's markets and ample natural foods supermarkets. But even here, according to the map, there are food deserts – some just 5 minutes away from where I live.
Less healthy farms, less healthy food
Farms such as those talked about in the movie trailer Farmageddon – beautiful, organic farms targeted by Big Ag – are the source of the healthy food which ends up in supermarkets. Why is it in the 21st century, with bananas coming from Ecuador to feed our appetites for the fruit year-round, do we limit our own producers of foodin our own country? Indeed, fellow blogger Kelsey Blackwell pointed out earlier this year that USDA estimates 6 percent of all U.S. households do not have access to quality food.
But it's not only growing quality food that's the problem. It's being able to stock and sustain a grocery business with that healthy food in a rural area. Natural Foods Merchandiser reported in November 2010 that rural grocery stores are slowly disappearing throughout the nation, particularly in the Midwest.
I wonder what the map would look like today if it included this data. As you can imagine, the Food Desert Locator is a little outdated: All store data came from the 2006 directory of stores, and all population and household data come from the 2000 Census of Population and Housing. But like any statistic, the map is a snapshot in time that can (I hope) positively influence the future. In this case, getting real, healthy food to the people who need it most.
Do you live in a food desert or near one? Share your experience in the comments.