June 07 2011

Living in a Food Desert: How Planning, Policy, and Market Drivers Failed

What is a Food Desert?

A place with only sand to eat? Almost. Try: A place where only high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrition food is attractive and affordable?

No single definition for food desert exists, but general consensus suggests:

So? Bad nutrition is not only a matter of poor food choices, but also of availability.

What Does Grow in a Food Desert?

  • Fast food;
  • Gas station groceries;
  • Liquor stores.

Vegetables and fruits are absent or expensive and unappealingly un-fresh, while hamburgers, candy, and chips are cheap, attractively displayed, and highly advertised.

Not surprisingly, residents of food deserts are more likely to consume the cheap stuff and more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases.

Planning, Policy, & Market Failures

Most urban food deserts in the United States once had thriving grocery stores. Beginning in the 1930s, and increasing rapidly after World War II, racist government and market policies encouraged whites to move out of inner-city neighborhoods and prevented investment in non-white areas. This massive disinvestment resulted in neighborhoods fraught with dilapidation, crime, abandoned businesses, and market unwillingness to re-invest.

Can Better Planning & Policies, Make Better Markets?

Governments and planners are trying desperately to design a way out. Recently created mapping tools help identify problems in the food environment:

A new federal initiative would, if funded, promote financial incentives for private investment in food deserts. Disagreement over whether to target large-scale stores or corner groceries points to lingering policy risks.

Food deserts have resulted from a collision of bad planning, bad policy, and bad market drivers. We have yet to see if these same forces can collude for good.

See if you live in a “Food Desert” by visiting the Food Desert Locator and then let us know in the comment area below. Do you agree with the USDA’s opinion of your city or town?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 at 11:07 am and is filed under Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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