How Food Deserts Are Hurting People of Color

Obesity is having a substantial impact on the health of people of color, especially those living in urban, lower-income, food desert areas. According to the CDC, Black Americans, in particular, represent a large portion of this population with the highest obesity rate among adults. In the case of those living in food deserts, there are some clear contributing factors.

Accessing Healthy Foods

The concept of food deserts, where grocery stores and healthy food options are not easily accessible, is a known obstacle to health and contributor to nutritional inequality. Johns Hopkins University Research shows that food deserts are common in urban environments and are seen more in high-minority neighborhoods. These desert areas also tend to be in lower-income communities.

Those who live in food deserts must travel further distances and sometimes take multiple forms of transportation to access the same healthy food options as those living in suburban or wealthier neighborhoods. The logistics of going to a grocery store and the tendency of more nutritious food options to be priced higher have been identified as obstacles to supporting a healthy eating habit.

Understanding Nutrition Choices

Nutritional knowledge has also been identified as another contributing factor to nutritional inequality. Recent research indicates that increased access to healthier food options may not be enough to address the disparity seen in lower-income areas if proper education isn’t also offered to inform food choices.

According to Dr. Jason Campbell, eating vegetables and foods high in protein, especially for breakfast, are effective ways to control weight or encourage weight loss. However, many people living in food deserts may not regularly be offered this type of nutritional advice to support health and weight maintenance. Additionally, exposure to fresh vegetables and high-quality protein sources is likely rare, making it necessary to be educated on alternative sources.

Combining Education and Access 

Without both supporting nutritional education and healthy food access, minorities living in food deserts will likely continue to be less healthy and have higher rates of obesity. It should be noted that access not only refers to distance but also the costs of food.

The income aspect associated with food desert areas is vital in understanding the food choices made. Because unhealthy foods cost less, it is possible that even with improved physical access to healthier foods and increased nutritional knowledge, a high amount of unhealthy choices will still be made. This could explain why a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed only a 9% improvement in nutritional inequality when low-income households were exposed to the exact prices and foods as wealthier, higher-income households. 

There are programs that currently subsidize grocery stores that open in designated food desert areas. However, nutritional education and improved access through subsidized pricing applied to the actual healthy food could be a viable and more comprehensive solution to address nutritional inequalities in low-income areas.

There is no single answer to addressing nutritional inequality and obesity in lower-income food deserts. Addressing the different contributing factors individually and understanding that income and food costs may play a more significant role than the distance to a grocery, is essential in finding a solution that helps decrease obesity among people of color in these areas.