SEATTLE — Thanks in large part to Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiatives, the term “food desert” has become more widely known. This term is frequently used to describe an area, urban or rural, in a first world country where households are deprived of access to healthy and nourishing foods within a specific distance. Food deserts are characterized by poverty and an abundance of fast food restaurants. These conditions in developed countries are often likened to living conditions in developing or third world countries, but is this comparison fair?
In the U.S., food security is a basic human right that is largely taken for granted, to the point that policymakers focus on getting the right kinds of food to communities. The very existence of the food deserts concept is dependent on an assumed level of food security. Developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, on the other hand, continue to have problems with governance and infrastructure that prevent their communities from having even this basic level of food security.
The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa released an update on food security across the continent in November 2014. The report stated that the percentage of paved roads was between 15 and 30 percent – less than half the global average – and in some parts of the continent, only 30 percent of the population lived within a mile and a quarter of an all-season road. This kind of fundamental infrastructure deficiency illustrates the disparity between food deserts, which are about choice, and food security, which is about survival.
One way the U.S. works to eradicate food deserts is pushing for urban supermarkets and grocery stores, using grants and tax incentives to encourage investment in underserved areas. Though the installation of a grocery store is not an immediate or even the most effective result, the ability to build and sustain one is an advantage that the United States has over the developing world.
Another way the American government works to eradicate food deserts is through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 2014, National Geographic produced an exposé piece on food deserts in rural communities across the U.S. One family was a family of six struggling on a monthly allotment of $650 that came from SNAP. This allowance amounts to $3.50 per day per person in the household. This might be sufficient for living on ubiquitous, processed food products, but foods with real nutritional value are either too expensive or simply nowhere to be found.
Ultimately, food deserts and food insecurity are very different problems, but they can both be solved with the use of the right tools and proper investments, often spurred by government action. Policy in the U.S. and other prosperous nations will need to be focussed on consumer choice, industrial subsidies and slowing the urban takeover of fast food companies; meanwhile, developing nations and international aid organizations will only ensure food security for vulnerable populations through continued support for infrastructure, political stability and community empowerment.
– Jeffery Silvey