Term of the Week: “Food Desert”

No, that’s not a typo in the title. I truly mean “desert,” not “dessert.” I recently came across this term on NPR’s All Things Considered on 8/12/10:

People in low income urban areas who have no car and no supermarket within walking distance often get their food from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. That’s a recipe for poor nutrition, obesity and diseases like diabetes. There’s been growing attention to this issue of so-called food deserts.

Entire neighborhoods in major cities and in some rural areas around the U.S. are now without major grocery stores. For the past 30 years, grocery chains have largely pulled out of inner cities to establish full-service supermarkets in the suburbs and more affluent areas. Many “mom-and-pop” stores closed long ago and, thus, provide no alternative. Convenience stores and fast-food outlets are often the only providers of food in these neighborhoods. The few corner grocery stores that do remain charge exorbitant prices since they do not enjoy the bulk purchasing power of the large chains. Such conditions truly resemble living in a desert.

This means that inner-city residents, many of whom must rely on public transportation, now have to pay more and travel farther to get fresh vegetables, fruit, and other non-processed, healthy food. For some, making the trip is impossible. For others, the cost is prohibitive. Forced to eat expensive, highly processed food, increasing numbers of residents suffer from food-related maladies.

Fortunately, some inner-city residents have begun to organize their own food co-ops to purchase and make available fresh fruits and vegetables as much as possible from local growers. And an unlikely source, Walgreens, has begun a pilot program of 10 stores in Chicago that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. Company representatives make clear that they do not intend to become a full-service grocer, but they plan on expanding this effort to 400 store across the country.

“Food desert.” A term that points to horrific conditions leading to malnutrition, disease, and exorbitant prices that burden those who are already at the bottom of the social scale in America. A term that reflects the results of an utterly unregulated, free-market system. A term that I hope eventually can disappear from our vocabulary.

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