Just Harvest: Growing abundance in food deserts

by Zach Murray

Research has widely confirmed that millions of Americans live in communities that lack sufficient access to nutritious affordable foods. In many of these communities known as “food deserts” residents often travel well over a mile to access healthy foods most commonly available at grocery stores and supermarkets. Vulnerable low-income and minority households who have access to fewer supermarkets and vehicles than wealthier, predominantly white communities often populate food deserts. The USDA estimates that there are as many as 23.5 million residents of food deserts and 82.5% of this population resides in urban areas.

Physical distance to healthy foods adds pressure to vulnerable populations and is frequently linked to the preponderance of poor diet and in time to diabetes, obesity, and a number of diet related illnesses. The prevalence of small corner stores, convenience stores, and fast food, as well as the absence of supermarkets and other sources of fresh food, constitute a poor “food environment”. A poor food environment intensifies risk factors for obesity such as low-incomes, absence of reliable transportation, and lack of cooking knowledge. A number of medical professionals and scientists agree, a community’s food environment affects people’s eating habits, which are an essential contributor to obesity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General, 2001). When low-income households and people of color lack access to stores that feature nutritious, affordable, high quality foods, it is more difficult to make healthier diet decisions that could lead to improved health outcomes.

Therefore, distance to supermarkets and the availability of public transportation are important determinants of a community’s access to healthy food. It is no coincidence that many residents living within food desert communities are also SNAP (Food Stamps) recipients. While research reveals that SNAP recipients face barriers in accessing vital social services, SNAP recipients also experience difficulties redeeming their benefits in their own communities. SNAP recipients live on average, 1.8 miles from a nearby supermarket and redeem their benefits 4.9 miles away from their home. When healthy food is out of reach, families whose budgets are already stretched thin must find extra money to pay for higher local prices or to cover extra transportation costs. Commonly, SNAP users attempt to stretch their dollars by shopping at distant large grocery stores, supermarkets, and supercenters where they experience cost savings.

A vibrant movement is afoot in cities across the country − farmers, activists, and community organizations are improving the health, the economic outlook, and vitality of their communities through urban farming. Advocates are clearing pathways making healthy food more available for low-income communities, shifting economic revitalization efforts, and battling the challenges of blight and abandonment. One such effort emanating from Pittsburgh is the project that I am currently undertaking as an Emerson Hunger Fellow with Just Harvest, an advocacy organization that supports low-income Pittsburgh area residents with the SNAP application process.

Building on Just Harvest’s commitment to support low-income families and individuals, I am assessing the food desert status of a number of communities throughout the Pittsburgh metro. Utilizing tools such as GIS and the Food Abundance Index (FAI) developed by scholars at the University of Pittsburgh, I am laying a framework for local policymakers to help remedy Pittsburgh area food deserts.

Learn more about Just Harvest’s mission, and the connection between food deserts and poverty.

Hailing from Baltimore, MD, Zach is a graduate of Cornell University with degrees in city and regional planning and Africana studies. Zach helped conduct a Community Food Assessment to measure food insecurity in Tompkins County, NY with the Cornell Cooperative Extension- Whole Community Project. His work developed greater local knowledge of the local food system and strategies for improving access to healthy, affordable food for all community members. Zach also conducted research on regional food access issues with the Urban Institute and completed an honors thesis on food culture in the African American community in Tompkins County.