About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on Food Deserts

I have mentioned Food Deserts several times in this blog, but today’s post will go further. Food Deserts, again, are areas characterized by limited access to healthy or affordable food. Research has suggested that the poor food environment in these areas, which are typically in low-income neighborhoods, contribute to negative health outcomes for individuals who live in the Food Deserts such as obesity and heart problems.

I work in a food desert. There are few supermarkets, but plenty of mini-marts and liquor stores. Farmers Markets are small and offer limited selections. There are lots of low-income residents, and they rely on the bus for transportation. Fast food restaurants are everywhere, plunked at the middle of each busy and uninviting intersection. Suffice to say I bring my nice little vegetarian lunch to work every day.

If I forget my lunch well, I’m usually shit out of luck. There is this one little oasis area of food establishments that I can go to in a pinch. It has a place called the Salad Farm (which serves what its name suggests) and a few healthier Subway-type sandwich places. It takes me my entire 30 minute lunch break to drive there, park, get my food, and get back to my desk, and the salads cost about $8. Lots of effort, lots of $, and the only way I can do it is because I have a car. Even then, it is a pain to get a salad.

Working in this industrial and economically depressed zone, I have begun to learn what a food desert feels like, and I have become very interested in how this vacuum of good food options impacts the people who live there. My sense, from my own experience trying to get a salad once in awhile or buy an apple to supplement my brown-bag lunch, is that the food desert situation creates some major barriers for low income individuals trying to access affordable, nutritious food.

Food Deserts are getting more research attention, and they are also the topic of some debate on several fronts. For example, there is the question as to weather or not they actually exist or are just based on anecdotal experiences. I work in one, so I can tell you that they do, but anecdotal evidence only goes so far.

The Centers for Disease Control just released a Canadian study called A Systematic Review of Food Deserts, 1966-2007. This study is one of the first I have seen that compares Food Desert environments in different countries. Researchers systematically reviewed evidence in an effort to confirm or deny that Food Deserts exist in low-income areas. They found that in the United States “a high proportion of low-income or African American residents were underserved by food retails compared to more advantaged areas.” In other words, YES, there are concrete structural inequalities in the food system in urban America. Other countries studied, such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, did not yield conclusive enough results to confirm once and for all that Food Deserts exist in those countries. America was another story.

The CDC study made some recommendations for policy initiatives that might mitigate the current food access problem in low-income urban America. Among other things, they called for government interventions to facilitate supermarket development in these communities.

This type of intervention, encouragingly enough, actually seems to be happening. On June 17th, New York Times ran a story titled “With a Little Help, Greens Come to Low-Income Neighborhoods.” The article explains a campaign in NYC inspired by the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provided grants and tax credits to retailers who invest in creating or improving stores in low-income neighborhoods. New York officials have also experimented with relaxing zoning laws for developers who put supermarkets on the ground floors of buildings in underserved areas.

Will it work?

Well, the Pennsylvania program has led to 69 projects so far with a very low failure (store closure) rate and the residents interviewed in the article seemed thrilled. Some smaller markets and wholesale vendors complained of unfair competition with the federally subsidized projects, and Goldman Sach’s (a high profile urban investment group) thought the city’s efforts were admirable but warned that even heavy subsidies might not lead to success in this weak economy.

Here’s my two cents: getting supermarkets into these food deserts is great, but it is really just the first step. Obviously, if you are trying to help residents in low-income neighborhoods access good food you have to first get that food to where they live. Once its there, a host of other access barriers remain. You have to teach people to cook differently, introduce them to new foods; you might even have to change their taste to help them learn to like vegetables. You have to get them to alter their diets to include the fresh produce that is now available to them. You have to intervene in a food culture that is dominated by fast food chains and Hot Cheetos, and educate people about nutrition and you’ll be up against multi million dollar junk food ad campaigns competing for their attention. And, you have to hope that people even prioritize nutrition and their health at all when they are already burdened by the many difficulties and inconveniences that come with poverty. Frankly, you have to get them to care, and I would argue that unfortunately, that is not easy.

Just as our national “food problem” is connected to weaknesses in our education, health care, and environmental system, so are individual poor dietary habits connected to a host of other issues including lack of education and resources, cultural influences, and income levels. It is important to put the food issue back into the bigger picture here, because it reminds us what a truly complex social problem lack of access to healthy, sustainable, and affordable food really is.

Speaking of lack of access to healthy, nutritious, and sustainable food, I just bought a sandwich in LAX airport for a whopping $10. Oh, airport food. That $10 could have lasted me through at least half a week of healthier fare…


  1. Baltimore is a pretty small city so pretty much eveyrone is less than a mile from at least on edecent food source. There are also neighborhood markets with small vendors who specialize in meat or produce, etc.

    What I've noticed about those markets and the farmer's markets is how much more prepared food they sell. When I first started going to the farmer's market ( a long time ago), almost no one sold already cooked food. There was one woman who would sell Senagalese food that she had prepared at home and maybe a couple bakers. Now, at least half the market is fancy a delicious (and expensive!) breakfasts and snacks.

    Luckily, there are still a lot of farmers or it would be a whole diferent kind of desert!

    We also have a group of people called Arabbers (pronounced Ay-rabber with the emphasis on the first syllable), men with a horse drawn cart who go through low income neighborhoods selling produce.

  2. I wish we had Arabbers in LA. The only people who go through low income neighborhoods in LA with push carts sell hot-cheetoz and ice cream sandwiches.