- A new report shows about 17.6 million U.S. residents — nearly 6% of the population — live in areas with limited access to healthy foods, also known as food deserts. This is a significant number, but down about 3.1 million people, or 15%, from 2010, according to the Reinvestment Fund’s 2018 Limited Supermarket Access analysis. The LSA measures access to healthy food by determining which areas are well served by supermarkets and which have limited access. It also assesses ways the organization can support new or expanded retail.
- In the top 10 states where food access has improved, the number of people living in food deserts dropped by more than 30% from 2010 to 2016. North Dakota, Idaho and Iowa saw significant declines in underserved populations. Maine and Nevada had noticeable increases in people with little access to healthy food during that period. While populations with little access to supermarkets are declining across states, many didn't match the national decrease of 15%, including states with major population growth, like Florida and Arizona.
- "For more than a decade, we have worked to ensure that all Americans have equitable and adequate access to healthy food," Don Hinkle-Brown, president and CEO of Reinvestment Fund, said in a statement. "The LSA has been at the core of our evidence-based approach to solutions that bring improved access to healthy food as well as economic opportunity to communities across the country."
The fact that fewer Americans live without access to fresh and nutritious food is an encouraging trend — in some states, a third of people who lived in food deserts nearly a decade ago are now in proximity to the groceries they need. What is troubling, however, is the fact that this access appears to be tied to income and race, and that many states with fast-growing populations are struggling to solve these inequities.
Still, there are creative initiatives throughout the U.S. that could further reduce the number of people living in food deserts. For example, The Salvation Army recently opened its first grocery store in a Baltimore food desert. The 7,000-square-foot warehouse also offers social services, like workforce development and nutritional guidance. If this model is a success, the Salvation Army said it will open similar stores in food deserts nationwide.
In another unique effort, Toronto-based Flashfood and Tyson Innovation Lab partnered to offer boxes of high-quality surplus food through a direct-to-consumer program called flashfoodbox. The companies launched a pilot earlier this year in Detroit where boxes are ordered online or through a mobile app and delivered to a buyer’s doorstep.
Kanbe’s Markets and other upstarts also aim to bring fresh produce to residents living in food deserts by selling locally sourced tomatoes, lemons, asparagus and other healthy items in small kiosks placed inside gas stations, Civil Eats reports.
While shoppers may not associate gas stations with produce shopping, the widespread availability of these locations make them an easy access point in areas where finding fresh food is difficult. One station owner told Civil Eats the idea is so popular at his Kansas City gas station that all the food is gone by 5 p.m.
The federal government also has stepped in, forming the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a public-private program that provides support and funding for efforts to bring new grocery stores, farmers markets and other sources of fresh food to deprived communities.
With a plethora of new food initiatives taking place, there is the opportunity for people to study these ideas and bring them to other areas. As efforts by the government, community organizations, food companies and grocery stores increase, the number of people who lack access to healthy foods will hopefully continue to shrink.