Monday, October 17, 2011

Meatless Monday: Food Deserts

Do you know what one is? Do you live in one?

The term “food desert” has been in use since it was coined by researchers in the UK in the 1990s (according to Wikipedia). In brief, a food desert is a low-income census tract, either urban or rural, where a substantial number or percentage of residents lack ready access to healthy and affordable food.

Food deserts have been much in the news of late. As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, the proposed Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) will expand the availability of nutritious food to food deserts by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets with fresh and healthy food.The HFFI is a partnership between the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, and the Agriculture Department (USDA). An Interagency Working Group from the three departments, along with staff from the Economic Research Service (ERS/USDA), developed a definition of food deserts to be used with other data to determine eligibility for Federal funds.

In a 2009 report to Congress, supermarkets and large grocery stores were used as proxies for sources of healthy and affordable foods. Based upon these data sources and measures, the report described characteristics of people and households residing in areas with limited access to healthy and affordable food such as the number of poor people, the number of children or older persons, and the number of households without vehicles.

A tool known as the Food Desert Locator was devised with these objectives:
  • to present a spatial overview of where food-desert census tracts are located;
  • to provide selected population characteristics of food-desert census tracts; and
  • to offer data on food-desert census tracts that can be downloaded for community planning or research purposes.
For the purposes of this tool, to qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income. To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The USDA released the online Food Desert Locator in May of this year. Simply click "find address" and then enter an address or zip code and click “find” to determine if your location of interest is in a food desert.

By entering my zip code I learned that while I do NOT live in a food desert, many in the outlying areas of New Haven do. 

The tool has a number of critics including Mayor Bloomberg. The locator has 26,000 New Yorkers living in neighborhoods without fresh food. The mayor claims the number is closer to 3 million and fears that supermarkets using USDA data will not come to Manhattan. Federal officials counter that the tool is a work-in-progress and will be updated next year.

For a concise look at just where in the country food deserts are, and who in the US lives in them, check out this post on the website of Patchwork Nation, a reporting project of the Jefferson Institute that aims to explore what is happening in the United States by examining different kinds of communities over time. FYI the Patchwork Nation community type for New Haven is “Industrial Metropolis.”

I know this is a denser than usual post, but with Food Day coming up on October 24, I thought I’d share a little background on this important issue. 

Have a good week, and come again soon.

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet.”

PS Please don’t forget about the frozen beans from China. The petition count is still rising, but at a slower rate than it has been, still going for 500. Thanks.

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