Gross inequality in access to healthy food

OPINION - Access to healthy food is one of those issues that anyone - no matter their racial, ethnic, geographic or political stripes - can agree upon, simply because everyone has to eat.

Access to healthy food is one of those issues that anyone – no matter their racial, ethnic, geographic or political stripes – can agree upon, simply because everyone has to eat. When most Americans think of food insecurity, they will immediately think of famine in some nameless country in the developing world. But rarely do Americans think of the food injustices happening in their own backyard.

Last week the US Department of Agriculture released a report on food deserts – areas where communities lack access to supermarkets and other outlets selling foods necessary for a healthy diet. According to the report, 2.3 million Americans live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. While this number might seem small, this number should ring some alarms, as the report goes on to say that the “urban core areas with limited food access are characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality.” People of color and low income communities are the ones most affected by America’s food crisis, and in the current economic downturn, this is not something to turn a blind eye to.

This might be shocking to some of you, but did you know that there is no major supermarket chain in Detroit?

Even if you are “lucky” (and I do say lucky begrudgingly) to live near a supermarket, that doesn’t necessarily mean the food you are getting is actually good for you. The USDA report also says that while “supermarkets and large grocery stores have lower prices than smaller stores,” “easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.” In short, the problem isn’t the good food you can’t get, but really the bad food you can.

I live in a moderate to low income neighborhood in Boston and I don’t have a car. The nearest supermarket within walking distance of my house is a small grocer where I sometimes question why the city has yet to shut it down for public health violations. The vast majority of its products are processed, calorie-rich foods with past expiration dates on some of their packaging. The produce and meat sections look like food poisoning waiting to happen.

But at the same time, I’m single, have no children to support and a little more disposable income to work with. So, I do have the option of getting on the bus and shopping at another supermarket, farmers market, or, heck, even splurge at Whole Foods once in a while. But I worry more for the single mom of three kids down the street who is not as fortunate.

Furthermore, if you saw the movie Food, Inc., finding spoiled food on your grocer’s shelves is possibly the least of your problems. There are some serious concerns about how our food is produced. Our food system is set up to treat food as a commodity rather than a universal human right. Big Food sells processed food at low prices – thanks to government subsidies – which puts local farmers out of work, provides low wages for predominately black and Latino farm and meat processing workers, and leaves a detrimental carbon footprint for future generations.

People of color and low income communities need to take back the food system, by demanding that fresh, healthy food not only be accessible to all, but that food processed respects humans, animals and the planet.

Much of this change has to start at the local level, by supporting locally grown food and educating the community about healthier food choices. Even my city is now making efforts to provide more access to farmers markets to low income residents.

Ultimately, we have to be hungry for change.

View more stories on healthy foods in urban America:
Grocery truck caters to underserved market
More veggies, less meat; flexitarians find middle ground
Where you live can affect what you weigh