A few months ago, I wrote about how to eat ethically on a budget, and since then, I’ve been bothered by the sense that I didn’t address something as fully as I would have liked to: the privilege inherent in being able to make the decisions detailed in that piece. Eating ethically without breaking the bank is possible, but it often requires visiting multiple different locations for different parts of your grocery list, or spending time learning how to work with whatever new ingredients were on sale that week.
The reality of our current American food landscape is that not everyone can afford to do that.
There’s a reason why vegetarians, organic food consumers, or customers of Trader Joe’s have a cultural reputation for being rich and white: there are significant barriers to access for fresh, local, and healthy food, and many of those barriers disproportionately affect low-income populations and racial minorities.
Recent research conducted at the Harvard School for public health found that eating a healthy diet—one rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts—costs more than eating primarily processed foods and meats. The researchers note that this added cost isn’t arbitrary, but a result of food policies that have focused on “inexpensive, high volume” food production, and a national infrastructure that “favors sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” The increased cost is compounded when you include sustainable or ethical food in the mix: organic produce is priced higher than conventional, and hormone-free, grass-fed steaks cost more than their factory-farmed counterparts. But the problem isn’t only that healthy food costs more; it’s also that healthy food is much more difficult to acquire.
“It’s a common misconception that low-income people don’t care about their diets,” says Harmony Cox, program manager for Columbus, Ohio’s Fresh Foods Here initiative, “but the truth is that food access can be very difficult for a typical low-income individual.”
Perhaps the most well-known barrier to healthy, sustainable eating is the food desert phenomenon. In recent years, food deserts have become a recognized problem, and thought there are many municipalities addressing the issue, the problem remains. Getting fresh, healthy food can be very difficult, depending on your neighborhood.
Liz Clift, a volunteer with Denver Food Rescue’s No-Cost Grocery Program, sums up the problem, saying, “where in the country a person lives—in many areas, both urban and rural—access to healthy, local, fresh, and sustainably grown foods is simply not an option because of limits to what can be produced in the region and what store(s) are available.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a city or urban tract more than a mile from a grocery store, or more than ten miles for a rural area, and in which more than 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Based on those standards alone, The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts, and more than half of those people are low-income.
But those numbers alone don’t fully represent the issue of local access to healthy food. Access to transportation, the availability of fringe food options, and the racial profiling of low-income neighborhoods all undermine access to fresh, healthy food. A mile may not seem that far for someone who lives in a suburban area, or who owns a car. But for urban residents who rely on public transportation, or who live in areas where temperatures drop below freezing during the winter months, even a mile may be too far to walk or ride the bus for groceries.
Over the last 50 years or so, grocery stores in the United States have gotten exponentially larger, and have trended towards big-box discount models, rather than neighborhood convenience store models. In addition, store owners are often concerned with the perception of a neighborhood’s crime rate, as it impacts their insurance rates and economic viability; as a result, corporate owners tend not to build stores in communities of color.
Clift notes that “smaller stores may not be able to feasibly meet the minimum order requirements of major food distributors, and therefore will not be able to stock as much, in terms of both quantity and variety, fresh food.”
Compounding the problem of limited access to groceries is the fact that many food deserts do include access to food—it’s just not high-quality or healthy. Food options in low-income neighborhoods may come from gas stations, liquor stores, pharmacies, and fast food restaurants, that sell ready-made, boxed, canned, and other types of food products that have long shelf lives and low nutritional value.
The grocery store trend away from mom-and-pop corner stores also means that the convenience stores and bodegas located in food deserts must charge more for their food; according to the USDA, groceries sold in food deserts cost an average of 10 percent more than groceries sold in suburban markets.
Low-income communities, urban neighborhoods, and populations of color also face a slew of other barriers to access, including, according to Clift “disability, ankle bracelet monitoring that limits how far from your home you can travel, and restrictions—including what may be purchased, and barriers to enrollment — to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).”