Index Indicator Blog Series: Food Deserts Leave Residents Stranded•
Through Americorps, I fulfilled two years of national service at public schools in two of America’s most under-resourced urban neighborhoods. During my lunch periods, I would often eat at the local restaurants. My daily options were plentiful, yet my options for a healthy lunch were less than limited- there were none. I could choose between three different pizza places, McDonalds, or a spot serving greasy Jamaican food. I was located in what is known as a food desert, areas where the opportunity to buy affordable, healthy food is nearly nonexistent.
The Opportunity Index identifies “Access to Healthy Foods” as one of 16 key factors that affects a region’s capacity to expand economic mobility for its residents. This indicator is measured by the number of grocery stores and produce vendors per 10,000 population as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Access to healthy food is critical to one’s ability to be happy and healthy, and therefore a thriving member of society.
PolicyLink’s report The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters states that “low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets and 1.3 times as many convenience stores compared to middle-income zip codes. Predominantly black zip codes have about half the number of chain supermarkets compared to predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a third as many.”
Clearly, when it comes to access to healthy food and opportunity in America, geography matters.
However, there is progress being made and stories of success to highlight. At the national level, Michelle Obama has found success in her Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Service to incentivize food retailers to provide healthy foods in underserved areas. The program provides tax credits, grants, and low-cost loans to retailers of healthy foods.
For parents living on a low-income, access to healthy food can be of particular concern. For some, it means sending their child to school with no breakfast. The “Community Eligibility Option” included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allows schools with high percentages of low-income children to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. The program saves labor costs where previously, families had to individually apply for eligibility through a paper application. Currently, 10 states and Washington, D.C. have made the option available. By the next school year, all schools nationwide who meet the 40 percent identified student threshold will be eligible for this new option.
The fact that 1 in 5 food stamp recipients in Washington D.C. do not live in a neighborhood with a grocery store, is a social injustice. If America is to be a nation of opportunity, it will require a collaborative effort to ensure that all of our communities provide access to healthy foods.
Opportunity Index Dimension: Community Health and Civic Life Dimension
Indicator: Access to healthy food
Measure: Grocery Stores and Produce Vendors (per 10,000 population)
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns and Population Estimates Program
Rationale for inclusion: Those who eat well are healthier, and thus need and spend less on health care. Children who eat regular, balanced meals are better prepared for school and seizing opportunities.