You Are What You Eat: You Eat Where You Live

Location, location, location. We’ve all heard it before, but did you know that where you live can even determine your health, and ultimately your lifespan? Today, 23.5 million Americans are living in food deserts, areas where finding nutritious, affordable food is a daily struggle. Fast food, corner stores and dollar stores are often the closest places to get food in these communities, resulting in many diet-related illnesses, and ultimately a shorter lifespan. This is particularly relevant today considering 7% of Americans live in food deserts.

The USDA qualifies a census tract as food deserts if they meet low-income and low-access thresholds:(1) They qualify as low-income communities“, based on having a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or  a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income; and (2) They qualify as “low-access communities“, based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).

Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity in the United States has tripled, and the problem is most severe in poor communities. Today, more than a third of adults in the country are obese. According to the CDC, obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. Moreover, this obesity epidemic affects some groups more than others, highlighting the uneven topography of the nation’s access to healthy foods. Non-Hispanic blacks have the highest age-adjusted rates of obesity (49.5%) compared with Mexican Americans (40.4%), all Hispanics (39.1%) and non-Hispanic whites (34.3%). These disparities do not just lie within the adult community; they are also prevalent among America’s children. There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence among U.S. children and adolescents. According to the CDC in 2007—2008, Hispanic boys, aged 2 to 19 years, were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls.

Like many problems that disproportionately affect inner-city areas, food deserts can be traced back to the “white flight” of the 1950s and ’60s, says author and New York Times columnist, David Bornstein. He states, “Along with the loss of middle class residents from the inner city came the loss of tax dollars for local schools, redlining from financial institutions and an exodus of businesses, including grocery stores.” These overwhelming statistics of obesity among minorities along with the disproportionate number of these same groups living in low-opportunity, low-income communities show a real and dangerous gap in the health of Americans.  Now is the time to provide the tools needed to teach generations to come how to eat smart, and this starts by making sure every American lives in an area of opportunity with access to fresh produce.

Depending on the area, there are many different factors that contribute to the creation of food desserts, and as a result, there are multiple solutions. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago has encouraged the creation of large community gardens, and has met with the private sector to encourage their investment in the building of new grocery stores in Chicago’s food desserts. Mobile grocery stores have even been constructed out of converted old Chicago busses. Many cities across the Country including St. Louis, Chicago, and New York have begun rolling out “green-cart” programs which allow local entrepreneurs to buy their own produce carts at a very low start-up cost, and to sell their healthy items in low-access areas. Other approaches include produce Co-Op’s, such as Chicago Area’s Sugar Beet Co-Op of Oak Park, which seeks to open a produce stand near the neighboring West-side community of Austin.

All of these efforts try to get at the root of the cause of disparities in health and access to nutrition across America’s communities. After all, you are what you eat. However, what you eat is ultimately decided by where you live and what stores you have access to. Ultimately, it is important to recognize that affirmatively furthering fair housing and encouraging diverse communities is the true, lasting solution to a nation currently scarred with unequal access to healthy, affordable food, resulting in huge disparities in the health of Americans.

By Zoe Chapin, Fair Housing Research Assistant

Photo by Thomas Holton