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Food Inequality in America: What Living in A “Food Desert” Looks Like

A growing problem that cripples many Americans, food inequality is the disparity in communities’ access to nutritious food caused by the distribution of populations, natural resources and funds. In our country, this issue primarily affects minority communities who also suffer income inequality, primarily the African American and Hispanic communities.

The presence of food inequality often leads to food insecurity, which is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. This insecurity can be divided into two categories: low food security and very low food security.

Low food security means that, throughout a given year, there are multiple times when the dietary or nutrition needs of a given person or family are not met due to a lack of funds and other resources. However, this does not mean that the person suffers from reductions or interruptions of food intake.

If someone suffers from very low food security, however, it means that they do not have enough money for food they need on a consistent and regular basis. In many instances, those afflicted report skipping meals or going for a day or more without eating as parts of their normal lives. 

When we discuss food insecurity, there are a few key, societal issues that serve as major contributing factors: income disparity, neighborhood locations and conditions, employment, race, ethnicity and disability. As research has shown, these are the issues that contribute to America’s food insecurity problem, and they have long decimated many segments of American society. This has contributed to the presence of food deserts and the tragedy of food oppression in the United States. 

A food desert, typically found in urban areas, is a place where it is difficult to find and purchase enough healthy, nutritious food to meet dietary needs. Again, these are typically found in communities with lower average incomes and poorer conditions. 

Food oppression is institutional, systemic, food-related action or policy that physically debilitates a socially subordinated group

Now that we understand the key terms and background information of food inequality, let’s discuss the details of these systemic issues and how the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated them, leaving communities across the country struggling to make ends meet.

Racial and Ethnic Disparity

In the United States, it is impossible to separate food insecurity from the myriad issues that primarily affect lower income communities, minorities and various ethnic groups.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 22.5% of African American and 18.5% of Hispanic households are food insecure. This is far above the national average of 12.3%, and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the links between food insecurity and race.

When it comes to purchasing food, the key resource required is, of course, money. Without enough money, you cannot meet food requirements, while also stretching limited funds to pay rent, utilities and other essentials. With this in mind, the reason minority communities struggle with food insecurity seems to be clear: they lack the funds. But do the statistics back this up?

In short, YES. In fact, minority communities, specifically African American and Hispanic, suffer income inequality more than any other in the United States. In comparison to white men, who on average earn $21 an hour, African American men earn $15 and Hispanics earn $14. For women, the numbers are worse: African American women earn $13 and Hispanic women earn $12 (the lowest amount of any measured group).

Despite hard work, these and other minority groups receive less opportunity for promotions, raises and other financial mobility. In correlation to the large wealth gap between whites and minorities, far more minority families experience food insecurity than their white counterparts.

Studies show that food-insecure households in the United States are substantially more likely to hold lower paying and less stable jobs, often due to a lack of better opportunities. While these individuals might not fall under the definition of those who suffer chronic hunger, science shows the effects of poor quality food on the mind and body is extremely negative

With lower salaries and less access to essential resources, including quality health care and food, an increasing number of minority families have no choice but to rely on government programs, which do not offer optimal nutrition. This is thought to be a primary reason for the increased prevalence of diabetes and obesity-related illnesses in these communities where unhealthy food options are plentiful and cheap.

As the wage and wealth gaps in the United States continue to grow, minority communities will continue to suffer the consequences: lack of access to nutritious food leading to hunger, health issues and further financial insecurity. In 2018, 14.3 million American households were food insecure, and that number will only grow without real change. 

Health Risks of Food Deserts

The omnipresence of food deserts in low-income communities in the United States is a threat to the health of millions of Americans.

Defined as a geographical area that provides insufficient access to essential, nutritious food, food deserts are often found in areas where many residents live more than a mile away from grocery stores that shelve healthy and affordable food. This issue, again, primarily affects lower-income communities, particularly those where access to cars and public transportation is low. 

In addition to difficulty finding transportation, the other primary component of food deserts is that they have far less grocery stores than wealthier neighborhoods. In fact, some studies show that in wealthier areas, there are typically 300% more healthy grocery options than in poorer (and typically minority) communities.

This lack of access to proper food suppliers means that, even when low-income families do have the funds to purchase food, their options are typically limited to cheap, unhealthy options. This leads many families into a reliance on unhealthy, processed food that has terrible effects on the body and can be highly addictive.

In addition, healthy foods that are available are often more expensive, leading many to the difficult choice between cheaply satisfying their hunger or eating healthier, expensive options. This difficult choice has long been listed as a primary factor for a dependency on unhealthy foods that has led to incidences of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity that have ravaged communities having to subsist in food deserts.

In states such as New York and Minnesota, where large portions of the population live in food deserts, disease statistics bring these terrible realities to light. In New York City, it is estimated that nearly three million people live in food deserts. This directly contributes to the city’s 22% adult obesity rate, growing number of diabetes sufferers (over 980,000+) and the 7.4% of New Yorkers who have some kind of heart disease. In fact, cardiovascular disease accounts for 40% of deaths statewide.

In Minnesota, the largest food deserts can be found in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, where hundreds of thousands live in food deserts. This contributes to the state’s high obesity rate (30.1%), number of diabetes patients (330,000) and number of residents with coronary heart disease (139,000). With poorer areas of Minneapolis hit extremely hard during protests following the George Floyd murder, the city’s status as a food desert has only worsened. 

Negative Effects on Children

One of the most tragic effects of food inequality is its devastating effect on children.

Studies from 2018 show that 13 million children, or one out of every six (18%), in the United States battles food insecurity. This percentage is higher than of the total Americans suffering food insecurity (12.3%), and in some states the number is actually far greater.

As discussed previously, food insecurity as a whole primary affects people who live in low-income areas, and food-insecure children are no different. Among the counties with the highest percentage of food insecurity, 28% of children do not receive adequate food on a consistent basis. 

Even in large food-insecure counties with lower percentages of food-insecure children, disparity in population can disguise the true statistics. For example, while only 19% of New York City children are food insecure, this translates to 350,000 children. 

To understand the effects of these statistics, it is important to track just how devastating food insecurity is on child development. Studies show that children born to food insecure mothers are more likely to be born at unhealthy weights and with higher predispositions to anemia and asthma.

As children age, the negative effects grow to include further social and developmental issues. Food insecurity is correlated with lower physical stamina, preventing children from receiving the benefits of exercise. In school, food-insecure children are at high risk of falling behind the curve, academically and socially. This can be seen statistically through lower test scores in critical areas such as math and science, as well as in self-reported statistics from schools showing these children to have more behavioral issues.

As if there were not enough, food insecure children are at a far higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These issues are often compounded by the risks associated with low-income communities that include higher exposure to tobacco and other substance abuse. 

The COVID-19 Catastrophe

The Coronavirus pandemic has had an undeniably terrible effect on food security in the United States.

Due to the pandemic, an estimated 54 million Americans will suffer food insecurity in 2020, primarily minorities and others who live and work in low income communities. Despite initiatives to combat this growing problem, a lack of funds and abundance of need have resulted in a failure to feed our nation’s hungry population.

From parents who have lost jobs to children who have been kept home from school, the funds and resources that the food insecure rely on have been dramatically slashed since the pandemic began. According to the Survey of Mothers With Young Children, 17.4% of mothers with children under 12 have reported that their children do not get enough to eat on a routine basis. 

On a broader scale, demand at food banks have increased some 600% in recent months, overwhelming the ability of these organizations to provide for everyone. Even before the pandemic, nearly 14% of Americans relied on food banks and meal service programs for food. Since March, this number has risen, while supply has not.

The US’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is designed to support those in need of food assistance, but the program was failing to do so even before the outbreak of Coronavirus. As tens of millions of Americans struggle to feed their families, our country’s food insecurity problems continue to ravage our nation. 

What to Do If You Need Or Want To Help

During these trying times, help can go a long way. If you are food insecure and need help, we recommend reaching out to organizations such as Feeding America, Why Hunger and local food banks in your community.

For those who want to volunteer in their communities, donations to food banks can make a major difference for those who battle food insecurity. Every little bit counts, and your help truly can change lives.

If you have any questions about how to maintain your physical health and mental well-being, feel free to get in touch at any time.

About the Author: Lisa Jubilee

Lisa Jubilee

Lisa Jubilee is a New York State Certified Dietician-Nutritionist, who has been counseling individuals on sustainable weight management and disease prevention for over 20 years. Her mission is to empower individuals to obtain healthy food relationships and to clearly understand the concept of food as medicine. Lisa chose to create a functional nutrition practice where what, why and how we eat are all part of the conversation. There is no One-Size-Fits-All dietary approach, but Ms Jubilee has experienced great success utilizing specific dietary protocols such as intermittent fasting, time restricted eating, low carb/ketogenic dietary regimens and AIP (autoimmune protocol) in her practice. In 2006, Lisa co-founded Living Proof Nutrition Strength Pilates, a private nutrition, HIST (high intensity strength training) and Pilates studio, located in midtown Manhattan.

As of March 2020, in order to continue to service her clients and the public at large during the Covid-19 pandemic, Lisa has begun offering all of her nutrition counseling and support services remotely. Feel free to contact Lisa with any questions: Lisa@livingproofnyc.com