Debate still lingers over how to solve food desert issues
Food deserts are locations where healthy, fresh options simply aren't available, or the community does not have the education and means to choose the right options. As a result, entire areas are starved of nutrition but full of empty calories. Many researchers and health experts have done studies on food deserts, though no one has a definitive answer on how to approach the issue.
The food desert problem
Food deserts not only lack a source of fresh meat and produce but are abundant in their supply of convenient fast food chains. A study published in an issue of Preventing Chronic Disease found that food retailers underserved low-income areas and focused their business on wealthy neighborhoods instead. In fact, these poor locations had fewer grocery stores than advantaged regions. As a result, residents of food deserts have to travel farther to find any sort of grocery store, let alone one that carries healthy options.
The study also argued that not only do food deserts exist in the U.S., but they create an inequality based on diet and health. The study suggests that local, state and federal governments take action to eradicate food deserts.
Solving the crisis
Health experts generally agree upon the fact that food deserts are an issue, but the question of how to resolve them remains. The most obvious response would be to build more grocery stores with healthy options in low-income environments. According to National Public Radio, that's being done. More stores are being constructed and residents are being made aware of their presence. Researchers published a study in Health Affairs that documented their efforts. Six months after constructing a new store in a Philadelphia food dessert, they surveyed residents to see if having a healthy option brought in more customers.
"We don't find any difference at all … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption," Stephen Matthews, professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University, told NPR.
The problem is that choosing fast food over healthy options becomes a behavior. Families don't always know how to cook healthy meals even if they have access to ingredients. Some speculate that education may be the key to creating an oasis in food deserts. Online culinary courses or in-store cooking classes might help parents get the know-how they need to make healthy food.
Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, heads a program that creates healthy food sources in low-income areas. Not only does the program build grocery stores, but it creates health-centered advertising, according to the source.