Have you had your three square meals today? How far do you have to travel to access healthy food? When you get there how much can you afford? Finally, if you can afford it, do you have the time and skills to cook it?
Alarming statistics reveal more and more Americans are going hungry or are food insecure. Over 1 in 10 Americans (about 41 million) now participate in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps). Millions rely on emergency food assistance and report being forced to choose between paying the utility bill or paying for food–all this in the “land of plenty.” And for millions of other Americans an over-abundance of junk food outweighs the benefits those calories provide. It is often cheaper and easier to get a bag of Doritos from the corner store or a Big Mac and fries than to buy or prepare dishes with fresh vegetables.
From coast to coast, certain urban and rural areas have been called “food deserts,” indicating the lack of accessible, healthy food. Food First, an Oakland-based food policy organization reports that food deserts “are defined by their distances from large grocery stores and other supermarkets selling a variety of fresh produce and healthy food options. Deserts primarily form around low-income populations where families live on tight budgets and lack a reliable means of transportation.”
The American Dietetic Association just released a position paper addressing the prevalence of food insecurity in the United States. It calls access to food “a basic human need and fundamental right,” and calls on more funding for food and nutrition assistance programs, increased nutrition education and efforts to promote economic self-sufficiency for all households and individuals. And in June of 2009, the USDA released a report called Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food–Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress. It is the result of a year-long study on food deserts and its impact on the health of communities.
Here is just one statistic coming out of the USDA study: 22% percent of households in low income urban areas live 1/2 to 1 mile from a supermarket and have no access to a vehicle. The result is often over-reliance on cheaper, un-nutritious food at local corner stores, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants. Most of the food at these places have plenty of calories (mostly from refined sugar and fat) but typically lack nutritional value. As food policy researcher Mari Gallagher put it, “Fast, cheap and easy is not a porn film; it’s the new American diet.”
Since there is a link between a lack of access to fresh, nutritious food and a whole host of health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, it is doubly important to address food production and distribution in cities. The high rates of unemployment and underemployment certainly are contributing to the rise in food insecurity. But also the flaws in distribution channels, the unwillingness of supermarkets to locate in underserved areas, and the lopsided nature of federal subsidies in the Farm Bill also contribute to the problem. Beyond donating to your local food bank or increasing funding to food assistance programs, those are deeper structural issues that need to be addressed and need to be part of a larger conversation around our food politics.
Fortunately, many efforts addressing food insecurity have surfaced over the past few years, including the exponential rise in farmers markets (including the acceptance of food stamps), the emergence of community food justice organizations, the forming of local, regional, and state food policy councils, and a rising national awareness of flaws in our food system.
For more radical approaches we might have to go abroad for examples. The city of Belo Horizontes in Brazil is using a food-as-a-right framework to address hunger issues, with its use of participatory budgeting, ABC food markets (below market price), community gardens, its preferences for locally grown food, and Peoples Restuarants, where over 10,000 people a day are served healthy meals costing about fifty cents.
Take the opportunity this month to learn more about food insecurity in your area. Take the Hunger Action pledge, donate to and volunteer at your local food bank, write a letter to your representatives. Take a nutrition or cooking class or plant some of your own food. If you can, get involved in one of your local organizations working on food security and local food access issues. For example, in Oakland, CA Peoples Grocery has a mission to help build the local food system and community health and Planting Justice helps build local food sovereignty by transforming yards into edible landscapes. Another organization, A Better World By Design, is holding a contest for students and student organizations to spur innovative solutions to the problem of food deserts.