Combating Food Deserts: Targeting Food Insecurity through Community Development Initiatives

by Maxamillia Moroni

Residents of Ward Three in Washington, D.C., which covers the upper Northwest quadrant of the District, have the highest average household incomes and the lowest rates of obesity in the city. Ward Three is also home to eleven of the District’s full-service grocery stores, amounting to one store for every 7,343 people. Conversely, residents of Wards Seven and Eight, which span the Southeast quadrant of the city, have the lowest average household incomes and the highest rates of obesity. In these Wards, there is one grocery store for every 20,415 residents.[1]  High poverty rates and limited access to healthy, wholesome foods are indicative of the food insecurity facing residents of many major metropolitan areas. While food insecurity is a mere symptom of larger, systemic issues facing our populations, targeted solutions that address food deserts can provide the foundation for broader community development.

Low-income communities are defined as census tracts “having: a) a poverty rate of [twenty] percent or greater, OR b) a median family income below [eighty] percent of the area median family income.”[2]  A variety of historical trends, financial capabilities, and social factors have resulted in geographic clusters of economically vulnerable individuals in low-income communities throughout the United States.[3]  These individuals face unique social hardships, including food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or [the] uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”[4]

When food insecurity occurs across a community, the geographic area is commonly referred to as a “food desert.”[5]  When compared to wealthier neighborhoods, food desert communities have higher rates of public assistance, larger minority populations, less-educated residents, higher unemployment rates, and limited access to transportation.[6]  Food deserts are not geographically proximate to nutritionally adequate food sources, and issues of access notwithstanding, many residents lack the financial means to acquire a satisfactory amount of quality food.[7]  People residing in food deserts also have generally poorer health than communities with adequate food access.[8]

Food deserts are common in many cities throughout the country. The onset of the recession raised the nationwide rate of food insecurity from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 14.3 percent in 2008.[9]  Despite a significant drop in unemployment, 14.3 percent of households were still food insecure at some point in 2013.[10]  As improvements in employment alone would normally decrease the rate of food insecurity, the lingering elevation must be attributed to systemic economic factors such as inflation and higher food prices.[11]

Whereas government nutritional assistance programs like Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program are geared toward providing assistance for short-term situations, solutions oriented toward community development enhance the socioeconomic well-being and health of the community as a whole.[12]  Directing public efforts toward addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity could aid in reducing reliance on public nutritional assistance programs, and foster self-reliant and sustainable communities. State and local governments should allocate resources to support community-driven solutions to address the systemic problems associated with food insecurity in low-income communities.

Policymakers should consider community gardens, co-ops and incentives for supermarkets as strategies to (1) successfully mitigate food deserts and (2) provide residual benefits to the greater community area. First, community gardens are communal spaces where participants collaborate to grow and harvest affordable fruits and vegetables for their local community.[13]  In addition to providing an affordable, nutritional food source, community gardens also encourage local development by utilizing vacant space, engaging residents in physical activity and healthier lifestyles, and decreasing violence by fostering social connections.[14]  Furthermore, community gardens have been shown to increase property values in the surrounding area and thereby generate higher tax revenues.[15]

A second intervention is the creation of food cooperatives (co-ops), or full-service grocery stores organized collectively by their members. Food co-ops are a uniquely adaptable food distribution model that can provide community-owned assets for food deserts.[16]  Many food co-ops, with the help of local or state funding, can subsidize the cost of memberships in low-income communities or offer food vouchers to discrete populations.[17]  In addition to providing access to a one-stop food shop, co-ops also employ local residents and keep profits in the community.

Finally, local governments could incentivize supermarkets and grocery stores to build locations in food deserts. Many retailers are deterred from opening facilities in food deserts because land availability, insufficient demand, construction and operation costs, and zoning requirements make it economically risky to do so.[18]  Local governments can mitigate these risks by providing publically owned land to retailers at a discounted rate, providing data demonstrating demand, and identifying sites that meet zoning requirements.[19]  In addition to providing access to food, proximity of supermarkets is correlated with lower rates of obesity, increased tax revenues, increased job opportunities for residents, and appreciating property values.[20]

Implementing any combination of these interventions has the potential to confront the dire problem of food insecurity faced by many communities throughout the United States. By utilizing an approach that is mindful of community development needs and opportunity, critical hunger issues can be tackled in a manner that addresses systemic poverty issues, something too often missed by existing nutritional assistance programs.

[1] See D.C. Hunger Solutions & Social Compact, When Healthy Food is Out of Reach: An Analysis of the Grocery Gap in the District of Columbia 3 (2010), http://www.dchunger.org/pdf/grocerygap.pdf.

[2] Food Deserts, Agric. Mktg. Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., https://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/foodDeserts.aspx (last visited Nov. 11, 2015).

[3] The U.S. Housing Act of 1937 codified the commitment to provide stable housing to the urban poor throughout the United States. The Act provided federal funding to develop more than 370 housing projects built and administered by local authorities. These programs are still operating in many urban communities today. See Nat’l Park Serv., U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, Public Housing in The United States, 1933-1949 42-43 (2004), http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/guidance/Public%20Housing%20in%20the%20United%20States%20MPS.pdf. Additionally, the number of people living in communities where forty percent or more of the population is living at or under the federal poverty line nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013. This may be due to the suburbanization of mostly white residents during the nineties. Low-income residents in urban areas were unable to participate in suburbanization trends, as wealthy suburbs passed zoning ordinances prohibiting the construction of affordable housing units. See Alana Semuels, The Resurrection of America’s Slums, The Atlantic (Aug. 9, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/08/more-americans-are-living-in-slums/400832/.

[4] Life Scis. Research Office, Fed’n of Am. Soc’ys for Experimental Biology, Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult-to-Sample Populations, 120 J. Nutrition 1559, 1575-76 (1990), http://jn.nutrition.org/content/120/11_Suppl/1555.full.pdf.

[5] A food desert is defined as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” See Econ. Research Serv. et al., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences 1 (2009), http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242675/ap036_1_.pdf.

[6] See Paula Dutko et al., Econ. Research Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Michele Ver Ploeg, & Tracey Farrigan, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts 9 (Econ. Research Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 2012), http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/883903/err140.pdf (analyzing demographic and economic characteristics of populations in food deserts).

[7] Christina Fox, Teach a Man: Proactively Battling Food Insecurity by Increasing Access to Local Foods, 4 J. Food L. & Pol’y 243, 244 (2008).

[8] See Ill. Advisory Comm. to the U.S. Comm’n on Civil Rights, Food Deserts in Chicago 5 (2011), http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/IL-FoodDeserts-2011.pdf (noting populations in food deserts have poorer health than average).

[9] Alisha Coleman-Jensen & Christian Gregory, Inflation and Higher Food Prices Kept Food Insecurity Rates Relatively High After the 2007-09 Recession, Amber Waves, U.S. Dep’t of Agric. (Dec. 1, 2014), http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2014-december/inflation-and-higher-food-prices-kept-food-insecurity-rates-relatively-high-after-the-2007-09-recession.aspx#.VjuwitKsgyq.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Fox, supra note 7, at 248-49.

[13] Healthy Places – Community Gardens, Ctrs. for Disease Control and Prevention (June 3, 2010), http://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/healthtopics/healthyfood/community.htm.

[14] Id.

[15] Vicki Been & Ioan Voicu, The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values 29 (NYU, Law and Economics Research Paper No. 06-09, 2007), http://ssrn.com/abstract=889113.

[16] Daniel Reyes, How Cooperative Grocery Stores are Bringing Food Access to Low-Income Neighborhoods, Cooperative Development Institute (Apr. 24, 2015), http://www.cdi.coop/food-coops-food-deserts-low-income-communities/.

[17] Id.

[18] See Sarah Treuhaft & Allison Karpyn, The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Health Food and Why It Matters 21-22 (2010), http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/grocerygap.original.pdf.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 19.