Food Deserts: Scarcity in the Lands of Plenty
Mohammed Ayub Khan
Like many parents, Rafiqul Haque has very busy Saturday mornings. An immigrant who moved from Bangladesh to Canada, he walks ten minutes to the nearest bus stop, foldable grocery cart in hand. He will change two buses to reach the nearest supermarket, embarking on a one-and-a-half hour commute each way. On his return, he loads his grocery cart on to the bus and stands most of the way. It is a shopping expedition that is hard, especially in winter.
Rafiqul, who has lived in Canada for five years, works as a parking lot attendant while his wife stays home to raise their two-year old. Struggling to find a foothold in the job market, he lives in an area of Toronto which has been identified as a ‘food desert.’ Rafiqul Haque’s case is not unique but rather a growing phenomenon in developed countries including the US, Canada, and the UK. Food deserts are urban areas with the least access to healthy food stores and fresh produce. They are typically populated by residents who don’t own a car and public transit here is below average. Mr. Haque’s case meets all of the above criteria.
In Toronto alone there are several food deserts including Mr. Haque’s neighborhood, according to Second Harvest Outreach Program (SHOP). An innovative food sharing program, SHOP brings excess fresh produce, that otherwise would go to waste, to people living in food deserts.
In the US, according to President Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, approximately 23.5 million Americans now live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket. The problem, long known to activists and academics, was brought to the forefront by First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move! Campaign’ which is aimed at tackling childhood obesity.
William Allen, an urban agriculturalist and CEO of Growing Power, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin says that he has been aware of the phenomenon all his life and associates it with racism. A majority of the areas classified as food deserts are populated by African Americans and Hispanics – a fact documented by a number of reports. A 2006 report by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, for instance, examining access to food in Chicago empirically demonstrated that on average African-Americans travel the farthest distance to any type of grocery store and that Chicago’s food deserts are largely on the city’s south side – areas dominated by African-Americans.
Dr. Daniel Block, professor of geography at Chicago State University, has observed that there are pockets of food insecurity on Chicago’s north side where many newly arrived immigrants from East Africa, Sudan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Iraq live. Theirs is a problem not of lack of access to large grocery stores but to stores that carry products that meet their cultural and religious dietary needs. As is evident, the issue of food deserts manifests itself in varied ways which are just beginning to be understood. In Toronto, the Second Harvest Outreach Program is witnessing a demand for halal food and is trying to meet it. Tonia Krauser, director of communications at SHOP, in an interview to Halal Consumer, says, “We keep cultural/religious dietary needs in mind when soliciting food donations. Halal meat is a high demand item in many communities we serve.”
At first glance the relationship between food deserts and obesity appears incongruous. But as highlighted by the ‘Let’s Move! Campaign’ there is a link. The ‘food deserts’ have food, in some cases plenty of it, but the overwhelming majority of it is unhealthy and if it is fresh, it is expensive. It is often sold at corner stores or liquor stores. These types of stores don’t normally carry the variety of foods needed for a healthy diet such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fresh dairy and lean meat products. Even if they do sell them, it is at prices higher than at regular grocery stores. In contrast, refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive. Families with low incomes try to stretch their budgets by purchasing these cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling. They can ill afford healthy, nutritious options, if at all available.
Food Deserts also have a higher density of fast food restaurants, again less nutritious fare sold relatively cheap compared to food that’s better for the body. Consumed regularly, such food leads to health problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. These assertions have been challenged by a recent report from the Rand Corporation which claims that students’ weight and the types of food they ate were not affected by the types of grocery stores or restaurants around them. The report itself has been challenged by still others over methodological and other issues. Critics question the quality and price of fresh foods available in the food deserts.
As the debate continues, most experts studying the phenomenon agree that a multi-pronged approach needs to be undertaken in order to fight food insecurity. Traditional venues like food pantries while serving some purpose are not the ideal solution and have their own set of problems. According to Dr. Block, “pantries often get near expiration date products. Also people donate all varieties of food that are not always healthy or nutritious.” Consumers need to be aware that their food pantry donations could be the only food a family eats. While donating near-expiration products saves them from getting wasted, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the recipients. In the Holy Quran, Muslims are commanded to give in charity from what they would like to receive:
O you who have attained to faith! Spend on others out of the good things which you may have acquired, and out of that which We bring forth for you from the earth; and choose not for your spending the bad things which you yourselves would not accept without averting your eyes in disdain. And know that God is self-sufficient, ever to be praised. (Quran 2: 267)
Therefore, it is vital that all donations be nutritious, usable products. According to Minnesota Food Share, “Avoid the temptation to donate that old can of food that nobody in your house will ever eat. Chances are if no one in your house wants it, no one at the food pantry shelf would like it either. Never donate dented or bent cans of food, food in damaged packages, or out-of-date food.”
One of the solutions being proposed is that existing corner stores be asked to stock more healthy food and fresh produce. The Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago (IMAN; www.imancentral.org) has implemented ‘Muslim Run: A Campaign for Health, Wellness and Healing’ to do just that. “We really feel like the corner stores can have a huge impact on food deserts, these are businesses that already in the community and where people come anyway. By stocking healthy food, they are adding another level of convenience and value,” says Alia Bilal, Executive Associate, IMAN.
What of the finding that corner stores overcharge for fresh produce and healthy food? “Addressing the price issue, we have a Ramadan Refresh the ‘Hood Challenge, which is part of the larger ‘Muslim Run’ campaign, where two of the fifteen partner corner stores will get donations of fresh produce via the Lupe Fiasco Foundation,” says Ms. Bilal. “The produce is being sold at discount rates. This will bust the myth that there is no demand for fresh produce in the inner city and we will also be able to see how much residents are willing to pay for fresh produce.” And IMAN has been proven right because produce is flying off the shelves. “A majority of these stores have never stocked fresh food prior to this, so when free fresh produce is no longer available after summer 2012, we are working with the stores to procure funds, so they bring in produce on their own. The Muslim Run’ campaign will be able to document that there is a need as well as educate consumers using art and media, to show why healthy produce is so important.”
Dr. Block adds that not only should there be more grocery stores in these areas but initiatives such as urban farming need to be adopted too. The idea of urban farms has special relevance in today’s crisis ridden times. Growing food in backyards and/or community plots greatly increases access to healthy, fresh produce. Communal urban farming also helps build neighborly ties and promotes active citizenship, creating tight-knit communities.
Besides donations to food pantries, what can those who don’t live in food deserts do to alleviate the problem? We can support advocacy organizations such as the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago with our dollars, voice our opinions to policy makers and the companies we purchase products from, and volunteer our time to urban farming community initiatives.
Resources: Donating high quality food — http://mnfoodshare.gmcc.org/docs/DonateHealthyFood.pdf
About the Writer: Mohammed Ayub Khan is a researcher based in Toronto. His special areas of interest are the food industry and consumer trends.