Food deserts: bringing awareness during the pandemic

March 10, 2021 5:28 PM

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A comic-style illustration of a food desert. Art credit to Shirley Cannon.

A comic-style illustration of a food desert. Art credit to Shirley Cannon.

Since the start of this pandemic almost a year ago, millions of Americans have died from COVID-19. Even if you haven’t gotten sick, the pandemic has still affected your personal life, your mental health, and it has made people more aware of their overall physical health. Health professionals say that maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet can reduce your chances of getting COVID-19. In the time of health crises, we begin to wonder about the food we put in our bodies; we begin to pay attention to the things we eat and the number of factors that can prevent our bodies from being the healthiest they can be. 

Despite these thoughts, deciding to start a healthier lifestyle is not always easy for everyone. Underserved communities and individuals of lower socioeconomic status are often located in what is known as “food deserts.” These areas are places where fresh food is neither nearby nor accessible. Evaluation Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at The Food Project, Madison Beehler, defines a food desert as “a community that has a lack of access points...from grocery stores to corner stores that sell fresh food.” As a result, many of these communities are surrounded by fast food chains on every street, with options that are most affordable for them. Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, all have similar patterns in these communities. 

Oftentimes, people are unaware of the impacts of their diet. They may not consider that poor diet and limited options can have negative effects on their bodies, providing no real nutrition that the body needs. As a result, their bodies are weakened against fighting viruses like COVID-19. Improper nutrition not only damages our health, but it also puts these disadvantaged communities at higher risk of mortality, as many might not be prepared to survive viruses properly. Black and Brown people have higher death rates from COVID-19, and many are members of these food deserts. NPR’s recent article on racial disparity during the pandemic describes this point clearly: “Data gathered early in the pandemic showed that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 across the United, as the U.S. has surpassed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, and reached nearly 7 million confirmed cases, racial data is more complete, and the trend is crystal clear: People of color get sick and die of COVID-19 at rates higher than whites and higher than their share of the population.”

The communities of people in lower-income neighborhoods have it harder when being on a healthy diet. It's more difficult to get nutrient-enriched foods because high-quality groceries and grocery stores are not found in areas such as Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. The reason for this is due to food pricing. Someone living in a food desert community will be located near cheap, accessible food down the street versus farther away, and higher-priced foods that are not convenient or affordable. As a result, these communities are forced to eat poorly and normalize these poor dietary choices.

Kennedy Thomson, a ninth-grade student at Madison Park High, says, “I think food desserts are a problem because people don't know about it and probably don't care...but if they did know more, they probably would care more.” She continues her thoughts, stating, “younger generations should know more about it.” With many mouths to feed, sometimes families are forced into taking the easy option of getting cheap, high-calorie food that satisfies hunger. What is not talked about is the resulting health damage it can have; type-2-diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack, heart disease, and stroke are all major health risks affecting these food desert populations.

Beehler emphasizes this point, saying, “there are a lot of factors that influence what people eat, and diet is linked to lots of different health problems. In the face of COVID-19, health issues that might be diet-related (like diabetes, hypertension, or high blood pressure) increase risk of contracting COVID-19, and also having worse outcomes than somebody who's not.”

Many people have made changes to their diets in order to build up their immunity to COVID-19. People have taken to exercising, drinking more water, cleaning up their diets, and overall trying to benefit their health as much as they can. According to an article from The New York Times, people “seem to be exercising as much or more than before, and surprisingly, a hefty percentage of those extra-active people are older than 65”. 

Paying attention to your health can be very important, but an extra layer of difficulty is added when living in a food desert when cheap food is what you survive on most of the time. Beehler says, “access to healthy food is not an individual's problem, it's not an individual who needs to change, it's the symptoms and policies that inform the way our environment looks—it’s what's available.” Certain areas have been kept in nutrient deprivation due to a broken system with many different contributing social determinants of health. Beehler asserts, “the way to give power to people is to come together and organize”. The first step starts with awareness, as many people lack knowledge on what food deserts are. Many in these communities are simply unaware of the damage that disregarding a healthy diet can cause.

There is no one simple solution to ending food deserts. Food deserts can be difficult to end, especially with so many contributing factors. The lack of information, lack of accessibility, lack of affordability, and challenges that come with showcasing these problems to the larger community are all barriers that make change difficult. Many say it's an endless cycle while recognizing there is hope. It comes down to becoming a unified whole, coming together and agreeing that change must take place. A Math teacher at Madison Park High, Jamal Shaheed, points out that “It's not an either, or, it's an and”. He continues by saying, “An organized effort, where the end result is policy has to be all connected together”.

When a community wants to draw attention towards changing something, they must join together and fight for themselves to be heard (through protesting, marches, general ways to express their need for something to change). There are small ways to attack this issue, but the overall effect will be to join as a unified whole to tell the policymakers that change is needed. Shaheed says the reason food deserts are not the focus of change is that, “it's a synthesized culture, eating unhealthy food and drinking unhealthy drinks is a norm, its expected.'' To break this norm, we must point out the severity of the problem and spread information. By working together as a unified whole, we can end this problem. Share your knowledge of food deserts with others because everyone deserves nutritious, affordable food that sustains healthy life.

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