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Food Deserts And Public Health

Public Health Threat #1: Malnutrition Caused by the Inner-City Food Desert

Big cities in the U.S. are widely admired as places with the greatest opportunities available anywhere in the world. Yet, in recent years, a common theme in nearly all of the largest U.S. cities has been the proliferation of “food deserts,” or poor urban neighborhoods where healthy, fresh food is all but impossible to find. With a lack of proper nutrition, the residents of these areas often suffer from high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. “Food deserts” are contributing to a real, but preventable public health crisis.

In cities ranging from New Orleans to San Francisco, from New York to Detroit, the phenomenon of food deserts and public health crises has been well documented. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that about 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts. Researchers at the Congressional Hunger Center report that there are only 20 grocery stores in New Orleans, compared to 30 before Katrina, meaning that the average grocery store in New Orleans serves 16,000 people, twice the national average.

After several years of growing exposure on the food desert crisis, however,  results from two recent studies suggested the food desert phenomenon is not as pervasive as it is widely purported to be. They found that such neighborhoods actually have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones. However, many who live and work in poor urban areas are unconvinced. “I spend a great deal of time in low-income neighborhoods,” says Joel S. Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, “and even where food stores exist on paper, their selection and quality is so low that I think most people would consider the areas food deserts.”

Eating Fresh and Local

There are several ways of combatting the dearth of fresh and healthy foods. In New York City, rooftop farms have spread rapidly, with the city already finding marked benefits. Not only can rooftop farms provide access to healthy produce, but also they can capture millions of gallons of storm water, diverting it from the sewer system and reducing overflow. Harvesting produce locally also cuts down on truck traffic, lowering greenhouse emissions.

Joel Salatin, a well-known author within the local food movement, has been a pioneer in the sustainable urban farming movement. According to Palatin, one of the greatest challenges to eating and farming locally comes from government regulation of the food industry. “This isn’t just food regulation,” says Palatin, these are just tremendously, invasive regulations that preclude embryonic innovation from happening. So, what we are doing today with our hyper-regulatory and paranoid, litigious society is that we are stifling the innovation that is the answer to many of these issues.”

Yet, despite the wariness of Palatin, confiscated materials are actually being used to encourage growing in some cases. In Delaware, Det. Michael Jay recently began utilizing $43,000 in hydroponics confiscated from a marijuana farm to grow peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, basil sprouts and even tilapia fish in a 4,200 gallon tank. The farm is part of the Urban Food lab of the Partnership Community Development Corp, a nonprofit that strives to revitalize the city.

Despite a lack of food from traditional sources, urban farming and local growing and selling are revitalizing many urban areas throughout the U.S. As obesity, diabetes and related health issues continue to increase, the availability of healthy, fresh food options in inner-cities can only grow in importance. In the 21st century, the city governments and citizens who value fresh food and farming will likely be far better equipped to handle public health challenges presented by illness and pollution while creating a vibrant and healthy culture.  

Charlotte Kellogg is a freelance writer with a vested interest and passion for technology’s role in improving public health and mitigating new problems. She is currently considering graduate school at UC Berkeley. Read more of her writing at

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