“Food desert” is a term commonly used to describe communities with little or no access to healthy food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and diary products. Millions of Americans — mostly poor, many African-Americans — live in these areas. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that about 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts, including 6.5 million children. Typically, food deserts are defined by: 1) the lack or absence of large grocery stores and supermarkets that sell fresh produce and healthy food options; and 2) low-income populations living on tight budgets. These food deserts are also signified by high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the community, which result from residents buying their food from corner stores that sell processed foods, and plentiful fast food options.
1) New Orleans, LA
With Hurricane Katrina wreaking havoc on some of New Orleans’ poorest communities, a lack of access to healthy foods has become even more of an issue for the city’s poorest residents. As of 2006, New Orleans ranked 8th nationally for the percentage of its population living in poverty. And according to change.org, some 60 percent of New Orleans residents say they have to choose between a buying food and paying utility bills. Researchers at the Congressional Hunger Center report that there are only 20 grocery stores in New Orleans, compared to 30 before Katrina, which means the average grocery store in New Orleans serves 16,000 people — twice the national average. Not having a full service grocery store in neighborhoods ultimately costs these communities millions of dollars in “grocery leakage,” money people spend outside the community for food. A study commissioned by O.C. Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association, estimates that New Orleanians spend nearly $915 million on grocery purchases, about $383 million spent by residents outside their own neighborhoods.
2) Chicago, IL
In Chicago, it is estimated that some 600,000 people live in areas that are considered food deserts, according to a report authored by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group. Nearly one-third of these residents are children. In a typical Black neighborhood in Chicago, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as distant as the nearest fast food restaurant. The study also found that Black Chicagoans travel the farthest on average to reach any type of grocery store (0.59 miles). Among those living in neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food, ten of every 1,000 people die from cancer. And while a host of factors such as poor health care and stress also contribute to these numbers, the comparison is more chilling when it comes to deaths from cardiovascular disease, afflicting 11 people per 1,000 in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, compared with fewer than six per 1,000 among the best off.
3) Atlanta, GA
In Atlanta, the prevalence of food deserts appear along class as well as racial lines. According to a report sponsored by the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta’s more affluent neighborhoods have more than three times as many supermarkets as its poor neighborhoods. When examined along racial lines, researchers found that there are four times as many supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods as in black neighborhoods. The study also found that only 8 percent of African Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites.
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