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Examining Food Deserts in the US:  Lessons Learned from Philadelphia's Success Story

By Akshita Singh | April 15, 2019 at 3:12 PM

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 8.08.27 PMThere are multiple social factors that affect a person’s health and life expectancy that are not directly linked to their physical state. These factors are known as the Social Determinants of Health, and they are all taken into consideration in annual rankings of the health of American communities. The Aetna Foundation and U.S. News & World Report recently released its list of the healthiest communities in America. Amongst the many living conditions that qualify as social determinants of health, one of the more critical is access to nutritious food. According to U.S. News, one of the most important determinants of health is easy access to a large grocery store, which can surprisingly have the same health benefits as seeing a physician for a yearly physical.

Oftentimes, in suburban and rural areas, public transportation is either very limited or unavailable, with supermarkets being many miles away from people’s homes. These regions are known as food deserts, which are: 

  • Disadvantaged neighborhoods that are underserved by quality grocery stores
  • Where people’s nutritional options are limited to cheaper, high-calorie, and less nutritious food.
  • Most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas, where many people don’t have cars. 

A new study by economists at New York University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago reinforces the notion that food deserts are disproportionately found in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It states that 55% of all ZIP codes with a median income below $25,000 fit the definition of food deserts, which is more than double the amount of food-desert ZIP codes across the country as a whole (24%). On the contrary, studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do.

According to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2% of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car. In urban areas, access to public transportation may alleviate some of the challenges presented by distance, but in recent years, economic forces have driven grocery stores out of many cities making them so few and far between that an individual’s food shopping trip can require taking several buses or trains. 

Making Progress Against Food Deserts in Philadelphia

Twenty years ago, Philadelphia had one of the lowest numbers of grocery stores in the nation for a city of its size. The uneven distribution of grocery stores in Pennsylvania left a disproportionate number of lower-income people without access to nutritious food. This issue impacted more than 15% of the state’s population; approximately, over 2 million Pennsylvanians, including more than 500,000 children. Furthermore, there is a correlation between diet-related disease and access to healthy food. Bringing supermarkets and other stores that sell high-quality, healthy and affordable foods to underserved communities can drastically reduce rates of childhood obesity.

Food may not be a panacea, but as Teresa Miller, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, puts it, “We know that healthy food can be the medicine people need.” Today, due to concerted community public health efforts, Philadelphia is ranked one of the best counties in Pennsylvania for its grocery store access. 

Yael Lehman, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust, attributes that change to a 2004 statewide program. The Food Trust, The Reinvestment Fund and the Urban Affairs Coalition launched the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) — the nation’s first statewide healthy food financing program. The FFFI received $30 million to create grocery stores in neighborhoods with limited fresh food options. In the six years it took the program to exhaust their budget, 88 new grocery stores had been created in Pennsylvania, including 31 in Philadelphia.

The success of the FFFI model in Pennsylvania has influenced the design and creation of similar programs in several states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio and New York. Momentum for healthy food financing continues to grow with efforts underway in nearly a dozen additional states, including Massachusetts and Virginia.

Other Efforts Against Food Deserts in the US

Other government initiatives that are making an effort to improve nutrition in food deserts include:

  • Healthy Food Financing Initiative - Goal is to “bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America.” According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, efforts include developing and equipping grocery stores, corner stores, small retailers, and farmers markets selling healthy food.
  • Let's Move! - Salad Bars to Schools provided 3 million students with a salad bar, according to the White House archives. Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act increased funding for school meals and snacks for over 50 million kids
  • Fresh Express - Grocery Store on wheels that sells fruit and vegetables to schools, senior centers, apartment complexes, health clinics, and other community gathering places across Phoenix and Temple, Arizona. Purchases food from farmers at wholesale and sells it without a markup.
  • Twin Cities Mobile Market - Grocery store on wheels that serves under-resourced neighborhoods in Minnesota.

Topics: Social Determinants of Health