Hamburger Series, Part 5: Access

Foraging for Food in the Land of the Free?

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks out about the food desert crisis in America

When one thinks about daily life, food often becomes part of the conversation. From our childhood, parents and teachers remind us to “eat three meals a day”, to “wait until after dinner to enjoy a cookie”, or to “eat those vegetables.” We often even annotate our days by what we had for lunch or what’s being made for dinner. Food is a part of our culture, is necessary for our growth, and is formative to our health.

The fact is, however, is that there is not equal access to food in Dallas, the US or abroad. These places with little or no access to foods necessary in maintaining a healthy diet are often called “food deserts”. According to a 2009 USDA study, 23.5 million people lived in what they defined as a food desert, lacking access to a supermarket within a mile of their home.

Limits placed on access to appropriate foods can be based not only in geography, but also in economics. If one cannot afford the proper foods, having physical access to them is futile. 13% of Americans live under the poverty line. Even if these individuals have markets or grocery stores in their neighborhoods, they are likely to struggle in purchasing healthy foods.

Most fast food restaurants include a hamburger on their dollar menu, yet they often lack the only two vegetables present on our “hamburger” – lettuce and tomato. Moreover, there are at many as 160,000 fast food restaurants in the US. Comparatively, the US had approximately 85,200 grocery stores in 2008, of which 59,300 are not convenient stores.

Despite these figures, the questions of what constitutes a food desert, and how prevalent they are, persist. Data seems to clearly elucidate that food deserts are most common in rural, low-income, and minority areas. These areas have stores that are less likely to stock healthy foods and are more likely to offer lower quality foods and higher prices. Moreover, 20% of rural Americans live in food deserts where a supermarket is more than 10 miles from them.

Studies suggest that access to food correlates with eating habits. In other words, if it is more difficult, or impossible, to access healthy foods, it is more like that one will adopt healthier eating habits.

The essential ethical question deals with how to deal with limited, unequal access to food. Who should have access to food? Should we force stores to build in rural areas? Should urban convenient stores be coerced into stocking healthier, more balanced products? Should there be one supermarket for every hamburger joint?

Access to food also becomes a question of public health. If people don’t have access to healthy foods, their health is affected. Will we feed people a fast-food hamburger off the dollar menu or will we spend the extra time or money necessary to feed them the lettuce and tomato?

Drew Konow, Ethics Design Team

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3 Responses to Hamburger Series, Part 5: Access

  1. Quinn, Rebecca Claire says:

    I think the important question raised by your post is the issue of agency. I would imagine that living in a food desert is not a choice one makes in the majority of cases. Someone with limited income has little choice to the place they live and the food they can afford to buy. The difficulty arises when government organizations like the USDA or FDA publish “nutritional mandates” like Food Pyramids that tell us how many servings a day of various types of food we are to eat. This type of nutrition focused thinking is reinforced by ads for dairy, grains, and vegetable products like V8. These ads seem to suggest that if you do not get your 3-5 servings a day, you are somehow left behind. So those stuck in a food desert are pulled in two directions—the government encourages us to eat nutritiously almost to the point of civic duty while simultaneously writing no legislation addressing this issue (to my knowledge). Could the government perhaps be responsible to provide groceries an incentive to set up shop in poor neighborhoods?

  2. Jordan Wondrack says:

    I am curious about this topic because I feel the cause and effect are completely blurred. Do we have any sort of understanding in the status quo of what has led to food deserts as opposed to the negative effects caused by them? Surely, this problem has not existed forever. Is the food desert a part of a vicious cause and effect cycle? Current efforts to increase healthy lifestyles seem to me to be both reactive to food deserts and simultaneously proactive in their future prevention.

  3. This is a sad and very real problem. I work with the school system here in AL to provide for those children that are not able to be adequately nourished by the resources provided at home. But even our efforts are often abused. We give food to the children to take home with them in the evening and over the weekends. And many of the parents return the food to the stores for the minimal cash return. This a very big problem and one that is not easily corrected.

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