Everyone knows that America has an abundance of disadvantaged neighborhoods and poor, struggling families. It’s an issue we hear about every day on the news, from colleagues and classmates, on advertisements and charity campaigns: some food stamp bill Congress just passed, the Pope’s pleas to aid the poverty-stricken, and won’t you please, please, please just donate five dollars to feed the poor?
We see the poverty outside our windows, on our way to work in our nicely polished cars, or in the seats next to us on the bus. Some of us even live it: 15%, to be exact, which is 2.7% higher than it was in 2007, according to the US Census Bureau. There are homeless people scattered across the urban landscape, there are ghettos and forsaken neighborhoods where kids don’t play on the playgrounds and police are afraid to go. They’re filled with single, working mothers who can afford no more than sugary cereals, bread made from highly processed ingredients, and cheese that looks like rubber for children who are already far behind their middle class counterparts in that the schools they go to are underfunded, they sit in front of a TV all day because books are expensive and discouraged by their peers, and the world outside their door is crawling with violence and danger. The latest statistic (from the Huffington Post) is that they have only a 76% chance of graduating high school, much less going to college. The last thing socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods need is another disadvantage. So, shouldn’t the people living there at least have their basic physiological needs met?
The human body must consume a certain amount of healthy fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals in order to stay healthy and fully functioning. These preferably not pumped with hormones and chemicals – unless you don’t mind diabetes and a couple malignant tumors, and life is just so difficult and disappointing that you’d prefer not to live past the age of 65 (if you live in, say, north west Detroit, you might actually feel that way). These fundamental nutritional requirements are often difficult and even impossible to meet in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This is a fact. These neighborhoods have extremely limited access to healthy, nutritionally satisfying food. The issue is so prominent that they have been affectionately dubbed “food deserts.”
It’s a pervasive issue in urban America. Socioeconomically deprived areas are further disadvantaged by the lack of available and affordable healthy food. Nutritionally deprived, individuals in these neighborhoods suffer from diseases and various other health issues at an early age. This problem is solely manifest in the United States. There is little to no evidence of systematic nutritional deprivation in developed countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, while the United States alone shows a pattern of socioeconomic-based nutritional inequalities. Multiple studies, compiled in a systematic review by the CDC, show a significant lack of healthy food with adequate nutritional value in low-income minority neighborhoods. In fact, such neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets and grocery stores per capita than more advantaged areas.
Even if there was healthy food available, let’s not forget how expensive it is. Even for middle class families, health food stores constitute a big expense. According to a Harvard analysis of 27 studies, eating healthy costs about $1.50 more per day than the average unhealthy diet. This may not sound like a lot, but when you’re a single mother of three living off food stamps, even a week of such extra spending can determine whether or not you pay rent at the end of the month. While this extra $1.50 per day doesn’t, in the long run, add up to as much as the health costs of a bad diet will, many low-income families have no choice but to address immediate needs (like making rent payments) first. The price gap needs to diminish.
The socially destructive disparity between costs of healthy and unhealthy foods can be exclusively attributed to large corporations. Food manufacturers prioritize quantity over quality, efficiency and uniformity over value of the product, and profit over public well being. And since the Model T, they’ve had the ways and the means to prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. The result is surplus and high availability of cheap, processed foods that have essentially had all the nutrition bleached, sweetened, and radiated out of them. I don’t even need to remind you of how they clog arteries, breed unnatural levels of yeast, cripple with obesity and diabetes, and lead to cancer and other serious illnesses and infections. They render us weak in mind and body on a daily basis when consumed too often.
Neglected communities need to take action and become independent of gluttonous corporations. Starting a community garden is a simple first step. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website has a nice, detailed guide of how to identify safe soil and Michelle Obama’s website, letsmove.gov, has a reliable checklist with basic instructions on how to start, manage, and maintain a healthy community garden. Another viable option is bringing a farmer’s market to your neighborhood or to a nearby location. Simple initiatives can bring about larger changes in community mentality and start movements.
On a political level, action must be called for. The price of healthy foods has to be lowered, if only for those in financial need, to a much closer proximity to that of unhealthy foods. The lower quantity of food stores in underserved areas must also be addressed: more stores per capita in these areas would encourage people to do their shopping in real grocery stores with wide varieties of somewhat nutritional foods, rather than living off of chips and candy from the corner store.
Of course, I know that diet is not the most urgent issue in these areas. It is, however, a simple one with fairly simple solutions that will yield large-scale benefits. By starting children off healthy, we give them a fair chance in school and in building a future. A poor childhood diet is correlated with a lower IQ, as a healthy one is with a higher IQ, shown in a study done by Dr. Kate Northstone at University of Bristol and a longitudinal study the University is currently conducting. Healthy children will perform better in school, in social life, and in sports. Rather than setting these children to a huge disadvantage from the very beginning of their lives, we can give them a better shot at educational and future workplace equality by simply making nutritional food available to them. We can work from the fundamentals up; this is the first step on the long road to restoring struggling communities, eliminating systematic socioeconomic-based neglect, and repairing deep social wounds.
And this issue is easily improved upon by individuals in the communities themselves. While gun violence, unemployment, and general poverty are matters of political policy, resting in the hands of strangers in suits, a neighborhood’s diet can easily be influenced by its own members, which can serve to strengthen community bonds and empower the community as a whole. This is not to excuse the lack of large-scale reform: this issue cannot be completely resolved until the price gap is diminished, along with the nutritional disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged areas.
The systematic nutritional deprivation and food store scarcity in America’s low-income minority neighborhoods reveals a persisting dereliction of governmental and societal duty of providing equal opportunity to everybody. It is also a living testimony to centuries of racism and oppression. We’d like to think that these are mere skeletons in America’s distant-past closet, but they’re not. Nutritional disparity is one of many injustices and inequities faced by low-income minorities every day. Solving the food desert crisis is one small step towards providing these communities with the ideal equality of opportunity that we all like to pretend already exists.