When Eating Well Is a Matter of Where You Live

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BY DANTE CHINNI AND PAUL FREEDMAN

America’s battle to lose weight and eat healthy has many fronts. There is the battle to get Americans to make better choices at restaurants. There is the battle to get them to shop smarter.

But for some people and some communities, the battle is about having access to healthy food. As we have noted in more in-depth reporting, some places may be swimming in Whole Foods Markets, but in others, places labeled food deserts, affordable nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by. And these food deserts are spread across Patchwork Nation, but very unevenly.

Some of our 12 county types are much better places to try and live a healthy lifestyle (the wealthy Monied Burbs) than others (African-American heavy Minority Central).

The topic is likely to heat up in the weeks ahead. Earlier this month, the United States Department of Agriculture unveiled its new “Food Plate,” the latest entry in the government’s ongoing effort to help shape Americans’ choices about what they eat. And in Washington, the National Archives has just opened a new exhibit, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exploring how the government’s efforts on this front have changed over time.

Seventy years ago, the goal was to ensure that Americans had enough to eat, particularly during wartime. “U.S. Needs Us Strong,” read that version of what was called the Food Wheel. “In addition to the basic seven, eat any other foods you want.”

By 2011, the objective had changed. Today’s Food Plate strives to help Americans eat less food, not more. “Enjoy your food, but eat less,” advises the new Food Plate campaign. Americans are admonished to “avoid oversized portions,” “drink water instead of sugary drinks,” and “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”

The Challenge for Many

That last guideline will be challenging for many Americans, to say the least. For those in living in a food desert, however, it will be especially difficult.

What is a “food desert” exactly? That depends.

The 2008 Farm Bill defined it as an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.”

Other analysts examine households’ proximity to a supermarket and the availability of transportation. Nationwide, for example, an estimated 2.4 million households in 2006 (approximately 2.3 percent of all households) lived more than a mile from a supermarket and reported having no access to a vehicle. In low-income areas, the figure was 3.8 percent, and in rural low-income areas, it was 7.4 percent of households, according to the USDA.

But the rationale behind any measure rests on one basic assumption: The harder it is to get to a supermarket where nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables are available, the less likely one will be to consume such food on a regular basis.

The issue has become increasingly important among politicians. This past week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel convened a meeting on food deserts with executives from six big chain supermarkets.

For people living in food deserts it may be easier to walk to the corner store for donuts than to walk (or take public transportation) to a supermarket for healthier options –- and people living in some of our county types have a much longer walk to any supermarket than others.

Living in a Desert

The calculus that goes into making a food desert is not as easy as you might imagine.

People With No Car More Than 1 Mile From a Food Store

Community Type

Percentage by Community

Monied 'Burbs

1.5

Minority Central

5.9

Evangelical Epicenters

4.2

Tractor Country

2.8

Campus and Careers

2.3

Immigration Nation

1.8

Industrial Metropolis

1.1

Boom Towns

2.0

Service Center

3.6

Empty Nests

2.6

Military Bastions

2.7

Mormon Outposts

1.5

In the most basic terms, the best places to avoid a food desert, are the big city Industrial Metropolis counties. Only 1.1 percent of households in Industrial Metropolis lived more than a mile from a supermarket and had no access to a car. Those counties do often have pockets of extreme poverty, but they also hold pockets of wealth -- and those wealthier neighborhoods tend to hold the better food options. And even those living in low-income neighborhoods benefit from the population density in these counties that mean any kind of grocery store is likely to be fairly close.

The Monied Burbs are second lowest (only 1.5 percent of households in food deserts) but for a different reason. They do not have the Metros population density, but they do have more evenly spread wealth -– apparently leading to better grocery options.

It’s not all about population density or education. For instance, the collegiate Campus and Careers counties (2.3 percent) have more food deserts than the Mormon Outposts (1.5 percent). Clearly, there are other factors at play.

But when you add lower income to more rural living you see a real spike.

The small-town Service Worker Centers and socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters the rates –- both fairly rural with lower incomes -– were more than twice as high as the national average, with 3.6 percent and 4.2 percent of households residing in food deserts.

Patchwork Nation knows from its own journeys that finding healthy food in those types of places can be difficult. Nixa, Mo., an Evangelical Epicenter we often visit, is particularly void of health options, though full of barbeque, pizza and fast food opportunities.

And in Minority Central –- the lowest income of Patchwork Nation’s 12 types -– a full 5.9 percent of households were in food deserts.

It is worth noting that those three types -– Service Worker Centers, Evangelical Epicenters and Minority Central -– were at the top of the list for diabetes cases in a post we wrote earlier this year.

One has to be careful to read too much into that. Keep in mind that in every community type the prevalence of food deserts will be much greater among low-income households. Although data on low-income households with no car are not available, it is noteworthy that more than a quarter of all households in Minority Central are low income and more than a mile from a supermarket (versus only 6.4 percent of households in Monied ‘Burbs).

Still, despite the government’s desire for healthy eating, for households living in food deserts, what are the options?

And these numbers suggest that in America’s battle for healthier living, some types of community start at a distinct disadvantage. And all the food plates in the world can’t fix that.

Dante Chinni, is Director of Patchwork Nation
Paul Freedman is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia a co-founder of the UVA Food Collaborative