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10 American Food Deserts Where It Is Impossible To Eat Healthily

food desert atlanta

Photo: USDA.gov

Over 23 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — live in food deserts: areas without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. That means there isn’t a supermarket within a mile.These are usually low-income areas, dominated by minorities. In fact, just 8 per cent of African Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket.

The effects of food deserts are devastating: they contribute to obesity and other diet-related illnesses, they force families living in these areas to use valuable time travelling to neighbouring areas, and they usually lack the resources to improve their situation.

The cure? Seattle is seeing an increase in “pop-up” grocery stores, while New Orleans has slowly been cultivating an urban agriculture scene. Other possible initiatives include mobile groceries and vegetable prescriptions.

Using the USDA food desert locator, we pinpointed the exact areas affected by this blight.

The Duwamish River in Seattle needs more Stockbox Grocers

The Pacific Northwest is known as a foodie haven, but outside downtown Seattle, the citizens of Washington are having a hard time finding a supermarket. The areas lining the Duwamish River are particularly deserted of food access -- citizens of the town of South Park have taken to fishing the polluted river for subsistence. Life expectancy is five years lower here compared to the rest of the county.

It's in this region that the Stockbox Grocers first appeared: grocery stores inside reclaimed storage containers, which are easy to stock and easy to set up in accessible areas.

The Lower Ninth Ward hasn't had a supermarket since Katrina

A combination of natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and poor government planning and response has really hurt the low-income sections of New Orleans, in particular the Lower Ninth Ward. Since 2005, there have been virtually zero markets in the area, with no place to buy healthy food -- the convenience stores that stayed open have plenty of beer and candy but no produce.

It was only recently that supermarkets were given incentive to move back into the neighbourhood, and initiatives like Our School At Blair Grocery have put urban agriculture and food access into the hands of the people. Hopefully, steps like these will convince people to move back to this historic ward, and will help the residents there now stay alive and well.

The South and West sides of Chicago are chock full of fast food, not produce

An estimated half a million Chicago residents -- the vast majority of whom are black -- live in food deserts, including much of the South Side of the city. And the food options that are available are self-defeating: in a typical African-American block, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice the distance as the nearest fast food restaurant.

Because of the huge food imbalance in the city, diseases like diabetes and cancer run rampant through the poor communities. It'll take more community gardening initiatives and a curbing of unhealthy fast food joints to reverse this trend.

Half of Atlanta's many poor people live in a desert

Lower class citizens of Atlanta, Georgia really feel the brunt of the food desert. Almost anywhere outside an affluent area can fit the food desert definition. According to a study by the Atlanta Regional Commission, high income citizens have equal access to fresh food and fast food, while only half of low income people enjoy that access.

The people of Atlanta are taking to the grassroots to solve this problem. For example, the Atlanta Local Food Initiative is taking on the economic, environmental and health issues of food deserts all at once.

Memphis is America's hungriest city

The nation's hungriest city has a food desert problem on its hands. Food banks that used to feed the population are now almost bare, and the grocery stores that people once turned to are either closed or poorly stocked. The issue is actually state-wide: according to the Tennessee Food Trust, almost 13 per cent of the state's census tracts are considered food deserts.

For a city that has seen little response on the part of chain supermarkets, other alternatives to consider are the growing farmers market scene in places like South Memphis and Midtown, and ensuring the markets will accept EBT.

Minneapolis is half food desert

Minneapolis and St. Paul are the twin cities of food deserts. In 2006, Minneapolis was almost 50 per cent food desert, as was a third of St. Paul. Making matters worse is the fact that one of five Twin City residents don't have cars, making it difficult to get to the areas that do have supermarket and food stores.

The Twin Cities area is fighting hard against the food desert issue, which has helped the obesity level of current residents balloon to 25 per cent. They've pulled out all the stops, from increasing the number of farmers markets to the Healthy Corner Store Program, which puts healthier, leafier options on the shelves of local corner stores.

Hunters Point in San Francisco had to rely on fast food for decades

Food deserts in San Francisco include the neighborhoods of Bayview, Visitacion Valley and Hunters Point, where residents finally got their first taste of a grocery store in more than 20 years. Before this, numerous supermarket chains refused to open a location in the historically poor and black neighbourhood. Other areas like Oakland and Richmond are still waiting for help.

Until places like Fresh & Easy come more readily to San Francisco's food deserts, residents will have to rely on fast food diets or journeying miles for an option. If they refuse, communities may have to consider improving transportation to grocery stores and/or farmers' markets, or replacing the processed food on the corner store shelves with healthier choices.

Detroit had to resort to potato chips

Poor Detroit. As if crippling unemployment and a depressing housing market weren't enough, more than 550,000 Detroit residents -- over half the city -- live in food deserts. The result? Detroit has become the world's number one consumer of potato chips. Part of the problem is that fringe retailers -- like gas stations and dollar stores -- are mostly the ones to accept EBT and food stamps, not 'mainstream retailers' like chain supermarkets.

The people of Detroit would do well to listen to The Michigan Citizen, which espouses changing up diets, engaging in urban agriculture, supporting farmers' markets and buying cooperatively. This is another region where Stockboxes could be used effectively.

East New York is a swath of food desert -- if you ask New Yorkers

Ask the federal and local governments about New York City's food deserts, and you may get different responses. According to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's team, the number of people living in food deserts is around three million. The USDA puts that number a lot lower, but they include corner stores with a deli counter ('bodegas') as grocery stores. East New York is just one of many NYC neighborhoods without access to quality groceries.

New Yorkers are fighting the food desert problem by improving transportation systems, as well as embracing the farmers' market scene full on. But it remains to be seen if neighborhoods like Canarsie, Hunts Point and East New York will receive the treatment they need under a USDA definition of food desert.

Camden is living with just one supermarket

Incredibly, the entire city of Camden, NJ has only one supermarket. Also missing is an adequate transportation system to help people make their way to the single Pathmark in the area. In all, the federal government lists 134 food deserts in the state of New Jersey.

The New Jersey Community of Affairs recently started a program that includes a mobile market: it drives around Camden, parking in under-served areas and selling products that are specific to the mostly Hispanic community.

And when you can find a supermarket, they have your number

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