Barren- Food Deserts and Hunger in America

What Is a Food Desert?

Source: Mike Mozart via Flikr

Currently in America, the neighborhood you were born in can affect your future income, education level, and your ability to consistently access nutritional food. The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance”. The USDA has defined two types of food deserts: one that exists in both rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest store and the second which exists in urban environments, where citizens face daily obstacles in obtaining healthy food due to lack of availability or resources. But, the average conversation about food deserts surrounds zones within American cities where citizens, hindered by lack of access to transportation and restricted budgets, are unable to obtain nutritional food. Food deserts play a critical role in food insecurity in the United States, and they are typically visible in urban areas where the residents are already living in extreme economic hardship. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB has recently published an article about food deserts in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that you can read here– but for readers in other parts of America, I want you to do an exercise with me. Think about your nearest big city, or an urban area you are familiar with. This can be in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, or whichever metropolis best applies to you. Visualize the roads you drive, the areas both wealthy and impoverished. Now, think of the few streets within that city where there are almost no Walmarts, Targets, Krogers or Publix chains. In this stretch, there are tons of fast food restaurants, cash bond and payday loan businesses, laundromats and gas stations. There is an abundance of drive throughs and minimarts, but you could drive for a few minutes before you find a grocery store. Can you see that part of your city in your head now? THAT, dear reader, is your local food desert. 

Note: The USDA compiled census and other data into an interactive map called the Food Environment Atlas, which allows any user to view rates of food insecurity, diet quality, and food prices in your area or any neighborhood you are curious about. If you struggle to think of a food desert near you, or want to learn about what areas are impacted by food insecurity, I recommend you try out the Food Environment Atlas here.

Source: DcJohn Via Flickr

The Cause:

Food Deserts have typically been attributed to socioeconomic status. One of the main characteristics that defines a food desert is lack of accessibility, which means people living in a certain region have limited resources, be it money, time or transportation to access nutritional, fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low socio-economic  areas, where residents are unlikely to own a car or have one that is not always working. Americans living here typically live paycheck-to-paycheck, and require both accessibility and affordability to make ends meet throughout the month. It is currently estimated that one in six Americans still experience food insecurity, and that roughly 19 million people are affected by food deserts or limited access to supermarkets in America. Recent studies by the United States Department of Agriculture confirm the connection between race and food deserts, stating in 2019 that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households”. 

The conversation surrounding food deserts has shifted to include race in recent years. Originally, the term food desert was coined to represent the socioeconomic disparities that cause some Americans to face food insecurity. Now, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing to recoin the term as food apartheid to accurately represent the way food insecurity affects those of minority race in America. The NRDC explains the term shift, saying that, 

“Many groups are now using the term “food apartheid” to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term “apartheid” focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas”. 

Essentially, it is vital that we recognize how a historical and current racial inequalities act as a cause of both the food deserts and the zones of poverty they’re found in. The historically black areas of segregated cities were underfunded and underdeveloped, plagued by lack of opportunity and equal access, and in some areas across the United States an economic shadow of that segregation still remains.

Source: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

Their Effect and Why It Matters:

America has incredibly high rates of obesity and nutrition-based health issues in comparison to other developed countries. While there are decades of research connecting poverty and race to higher rates of nutrition-based disease and other health issues in America, science is now beginning to track the specific effects of food deserts on obesity and chronic illness. A corner store or a pocket-sized version of big supermarket chains like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but if you take the time to walk inside you’ll see the fresh produce section is either neglected or nonexistent. These smaller stores have less room for inventory, their foods are less likely to be fresh produce due to the requirements to keep them fresh, and these foods are often packaged and processed. That means those who depend on these stores are limited to fast food, packaged goods, or other processed and low quality options that can contribute to malnutrition, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.

In addition to the effects of food deserts on health, the prices per unit are almost always more expensive than their suburban, chain-grocery counterparts. A person who can afford a Costco membership will almost always spend less on the same food products as a family living paycheck to paycheck or utilizing EBT for groceries. A 1997 USDA study found that “geographic location was the single most important contribution to higher nationwide average prices faced by low-income households”, and that smaller stores charged more per item than supermarkets nationwide. Food scarcity and cost disparities disproportionately affect minorities and those already living in financial insecurity, and each city has a part to play in ending this national crisis of inequality.

Source: Sue Thompson via Flickr

Join the movement to end food insecurity in the US:

Ultimately, the end to food desertification requires an effort between elected officials and businesses to make nutritious food affordable and accessible for all people. If you recognized a food desert near you in the imaginative exercise we did earlier, that could be the perfect topic to address with your local lawmakers through emails, calls or petitioning. If you prefer other types of action, there are countless ways to work as individuals to help your community in the meantime. Getting involved in the fight against food insecurity can be as hands-on and involved as you want, from donating non-perishable foods and needed items to local organizations, shelters or food kitchens to establishing a community garden, or everything in between. There are plenty of ways to make a difference at whatever level of involvement works best for you, and I’ve linked some of my favorites below!

A Few Ways to Get Involved:

  • Click HERE to find your elected officials on the state and local level and how to contact them about the food deserts affecting their voters. You can use your voice to push for changes that directly impact your community in a positive way.
  • Feeding America is a charity that uses your donations to help the 1 in 8 Americans experiencing hunger now. This link takes you straight to their front page, which features a zip code locator for the closest food bank to you!
  • Organize or contribute to a local food drive. Many public schools and local businesses run food drives for charities throughout the year, and Rotary International has an awesome guide available for starting your own community food drive HERE. Sharing surplus food is an excellent way to help others while reducing waste as well!
  • Use this link to find food pantries near you to donate, volunteer, and get involved in your state’s fight against food insecurity.
  • Find what works for you. Try searching for more ways to get involved that are tailored to your area and preferences…every contribution helps!

Worldwide Famine and its Impact

by Nicole Allen and Pam Zuber

Sharing out the beans Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into everyday, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts.
Sharing out the beans. Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into every day, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts. Source: Julien Harneis, Creative Commons

Famine and other types of food insecurity are problems in several ways. A chronic and widespread lack of food is not only harmful to people’s health but can produce other repercussions.  Unfortunately, we are witnessing many of these short- and long-term repercussions of famine and food insecurity in several areas of the world.

Yemen

Yemen is a country in the throes of a vicious civil war. Like other countries experiencing such strife, it is experiencing food insecurity as well. People who experience food insecurity do not have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food. Yemenis truly do not have physical access. Experts estimate that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, but the civil war has closed the country’s airports to civilian flights, blocked its seaports, and created dangerous conditions within the country. Even if food becomes available, many impoverished Yemenis cannot afford it. Saudi Arabia invested billions in Yemen in early 2018 to reinforce the latter nation’s economy and the riyal, its unit of currency, but the economic status of Yemen remains precarious.      

Malnutrition causes other problems. Malnourished people are susceptible to disease that requires medical intervention, and this has been the case in Yemen. The country has experienced cholera and meningitis outbreaks. These diseases can create even more malnutrition. Thus, Yemen is battling a vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease. There is another, less-discussed but still significant factor that also contributes to problems in the country: drug use. Many in the country use a drug called qat (also spelled khat). Users say the drug enhances strength and virility, which is why military leaders allegedly give it to child soldiers. Users also say it suppresses the appetite, which could make qat attractive in a country experiencing food instability. Given qat’s popularity, it is also big business for the people who grow and supply it. Qat is profitable, which could encourage people to grow and sell it instead of other crops that could feed Yemenis. But, as with any drug, struggles for control over the qat market could provide dangerous, especially in a country already experiencing political instability. The quest for profit might come before the health, physical safety, and other human rights of Yemenis.

Somalia

Long subject to periods of drought that devastate its food supply, Somalia’s food situation is bleak. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme: “As of May 2018, 2.7 million people [in Somalia] cannot meet their daily food requirements today and require urgent humanitarian assistance, with more than half a million on the brink of famine. Another 2.7 million Somalis need livelihood support to keep from sliding into crisis. An estimated 300,000 children under age 5 are malnourished, including 48,000 who are severely malnourished and face a high risk of disease and death.” Such drought limits the crops Somalis can grow and shrinks the amount of pasture land they can use for their livestock. It also puts people out of work, preventing them from buying food and other necessities.

What little food and water there is available is a precious commodity in Somalia. People have attempted to control these scarce resources to build and consolidate power, which has sometimes led to violence and tension. People without such resources might be more willing to join violent movements because they feel as if they have no other optionsThus, famine and reduced job prospects might be breeding grounds for violent groups of people who feel as if they have nothing to lose. It could contribute to violence, unrest, and human rights violations, since people may feel that their situations are hopeless and that human life is worthless.

Nigeria

As with other countries on this list, political strife has created considerable food insecurity and other problems in Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram has been active in northeast Nigeria since the early 2000s. Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language and the group calls for Islamic law (sharia). The group has protested secular Nigerian rule in various ways, most notably by kidnapping several women, girls, and children in a number of separate incidents and by bombing and attacking government and United Nations buildings. Boko Haram has also clashed with government representatives and multinational troops, which has killed several Nigerians, displaced others, and severely disrupted everyday life in the African nation: “[I]t is likely that significant populations remain in areas of the northeast that are currently inaccessible to humanitarian actors. Reports indicate that people fleeing from conflict-affected, inaccessible areas [in Nigeria] are often severely food insecure and exhibit signs of malnutrition,” according to a 2018 report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

If Nigerians had their way, they would not only have access to food, but the means to grow it as well. Fanna Kachella is a farmer in Rann, a city in northeastern Nigeria. The ongoing political conflict has affected her livelihood, but she hopes that food assistance can help her and her family: “Not having anything much to do has been hard for us, we are used to planting our own food. I hope we will get a good harvest from the seed.” The ability to support oneself and one’s family should be a fundamental human right. Not being able to do so is denying this right. Not being able to do so can jeopardize a person’s health, dignity, ability to form and nurture a family, and interactions with others.

a group photo of the women of SIM South Sudan
SIM South Sudan Harvest Worker Project. Source: SIM East Africa, Creative Commons

South Sudan

Founded in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. But, in its brief history, it has faced many problems that are as old as time. Unlike other countries on this list, it looks as conditions may be improving, however. On August 6, 2018, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, signed a power-sharing cease-fire agreement with the leader of his political opposition, Riek Machar. As part of this agreement, Machar would serve as one of the five vice presidents of the country. Political conflicts between the two men plunged South Sudan into civil war in 2013. Machar once served as Kiir’s deputy but fled the country after a dispute between the men. The two men agreed to end their dispute in 2015, but it ended in 2016 when Machar return to the country’s capital, Juba.

These personal disputes erupted into a country-wide civil war that has killed thousands of residents of South Sudan and displaced almost two million more. The political conflict and its resultant disruptions, massive displacement, economic problems, flooding, dry spells, and pests all contributed to famine conditions in 2017. According to the international initiative the IPC (the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), “5.3 million people required food assistance” in South Sudan in January 2018, “up 40 percent from the same time last year.” The initiative attributed these food-related problems to “widespread conflict [that] continues to displace communities, disrupt livelihood activities and impede humanitarian access to vulnerable populations.” But, if the truce between Kiir and Machar holds, it could spell an end to this calamitous conflict. Perhaps it will allow people to return to their homes and grow and obtain food, reversing the food insecurity and other problems that this new nation has faced.

North Korea

Food insecurity and malnutrition have been common occurrences for decades in North Korea, another country also experiencing political troubles. The oppressive and secretive nature of the country’s government has made it difficult to determine the extent of North Korea’s many problems. But, the estimates are devastating. For example, experts believe that a famine in the country in the 1990s killed up to three million people. North Korea’s mountainous terrain and cold climate have always made agriculture difficult, and the country no longer received agricultural aid from the Soviet Union after the latter country collapsed in the early 1990s, which made farming even more difficult.

The North Korean government claims that a lack of aid from other countries continues to hurt the country. Many countries have imposed sanctions on North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program. The countries imposing the sanctions have claimed that they did not place sanctions on food but on other goods. But, even these sanctions threaten the livelihoods of many North Koreans. If the North Koreans cannot earn enough money, they cannot earn enough to feed themselves and their families. The results have been heart-wrenching. “[H]unger remains a way of life” in North Korea, wrote Dr. Kee B. Park in a December 2017 article in the New York Times. “Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited [North Korean capital] Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.” Park vividly explains how hunger creates immediate problems and future ones. Not having food creates insecurity that can last a lifetime. It can create physical and emotional problems that persist long after people receive adequate food if they ever receive adequate food.

What Are People Doing About Hunger-Related Issues?

Different governments are pitching in to tackle famine. The government of United States president Donald Trump pledged to donate more than $1 billion since November 2017 alone. Still, relief workers say that the governments of other countries can do more. That is if the governments even know about such problems in the first place. Relief workers say that people do not know that famine exists in many places. They say that Trump’s administration has been helpful in its humanitarian efforts. But, on the other hand, they also say that publicity surrounding Trump and the activities of his administration has overshadowed people’s knowledge about other things, including famine and food insecurity in different parts of the world. Food insecurity is also tied to political insecurity. It is no coincidence that many of the countries on this list have experienced war or other forms of political instability in addition to food problems. Many experts believe hunger and war are often inextricably linked. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, “The hope for a famine-free world depends on improved governance and on peace. It is as simple – and as difficult – is that.”

Nicole Allen is a freelance writer and educator based in the United States. She believes that her writing is an extension of her career as a tutor since they both encourage learning and discussing new things. Her degrees in creative writing, education, and psychology help her understand her target audience and how to reach them in creative and educational ways. She has written about fitness and health, substance abuse and treatment, personal finance and economics, parenting, relationships, higher education, careers, travel, and many other topics, sometimes in the same piece. When she isn’t writing, you might find Nicole running, hiking, and swimming. She has participated in several 10K races and hopes to compete in a marathon one day. A longtime volunteer at animal shelters, Nicole is a passionate supporter of organizations that help animals. She also enjoys spending time with the dogs and cats in her life and spoiling them rotten.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, business, and gender.