Food Deserts Starve the State and Its Residents

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect low-income communities, the lack of proper access to food only serves to worsen this disparity. Food deserts occur where there is little access to healthy food, typically due to limited public transportation. These deserts are prevalent in low-income and rural communities. Since there is a lack of transportation, Georgians living in food deserts are constrained to local food chains and small convenience stores with limited fresh produce.[1] Currently, 19% of Georgians live in food deserts, inhibiting them from maintaining a healthy diet made up of nutritional necessities.[2]

In the state, more than 2 million residents live in food deserts, where they do not have basic access to fresh and healthy food.[3] According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas where “the poverty rate is equal to or higher than 30% or the median family income is not higher than 80% of the median family income in urban areas.” [4] Communities living in food deserts not only lack the ability to purchase healthy and cost-efficient foods but also lack access to public transportation to get to other areas with more abundant access. As a result, people living in food deserts tend to purchase food from the most convenient locations, whether it be fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, drugstores or gas stations. When nutritious food is available inside food deserts, it is usually significantly more expensive due to lack of local competition, meaning residents are pushed to consume less expensive processed food. Limited availability of healthy produce contributes to unhealthy diets, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. Similarly, research shows that having at least one supermarket within two miles of a household is heavily correlated with better diet quality, less obesity and higher vegetable and fruit intake.[5]

In Clarke County, “the number of people facing food insecurity in 2018 was 20,320,” a rate of 16.3% of residents.[6] Students at the University of Georgia have options to combat food insecurities, such as the UGA Student Food Pantry and the Athens Farmers Market; however, these options are not available to all residents of the Clarke County area and access to transportation has become very limited during the COVID-19 pandemic.[7]

According to Feeding America, in 2021, approximately 1.2 million Georgians suffer from food insecurity or lack access to enough food for all household members to have an active and healthy life.[8] The state currently has the “sixth-highest share of low-income areas whose residents also lack adequate access to supermarkets.” [9] Food insecurity costs the state $1.78 billion, not considering extra health care costs from chronic disease treatments and hospital admissions.[10] To start combating this problem, the Senate of Georgia created a committee sponsored by Senator Harold Jones D-Augusta, to look at any changes that could be made in the state’s economic policies and determine legislation to improve access to healthy foods and end food deserts in the state.[11] The committee is currently looking at establishing farmers’ markets in food deserts in an attempt to provide healthier food options at lower prices, according to Senator Harold Jones, chairman of the committee.[12] Between 1994 and 2014, the number of farmers’ markets increased at an annual rate of 8.4%, due to an increased interest in fresh and local foods.

According to the USDA, farmers’ markets are a community-level solution to the lack of food accessibility in rural and low-income areas, since they are “less expensive, require less space, and can be quicker to implement.” [13] However, there are difficulties faced by farmers’ markets, such as limited budgets and volunteers. Few farmers’ markets in rural areas also accept food assistance programs for low-income residents, which may be due to the lack of time, knowledge and funds to equip markets with EBT machines. In addition to the costs of setting up the technology required for the use of EBT machines, there are also administrative costs, such as developing the process needed to successfully accept food assistance benefits, training market managers and farmers, hiring staff to work at EBT booths, promoting the food assistance programs and financial reporting responsibilities.[14] Due to such difficulties, the success of food assistance programs and farmers’ markets varies depending on the state. For example, California and New York have the capacity and sufficient funds to support food assistance programs at farmers’ markets; however, Georgia, with one of the “lowest concentrations of farmers’ markets in food deserts”, does not have the necessary state and local funds to maintain the technological and administrative costs.[15] The implementation of farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods is one of the more immediate solutions that would help thousands of people, however, without the necessary funding, they will never achieve their fullest potential.

Throughout the country, several states have attempted to end or decrease food deserts, such as Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. In April 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma, passed legislation that limits the dispersal of new dollar stores in north Tulsa, a predominantly African-American community located in a food desert. This policy includes incentives to foster better alternatives, such as the development of stores that sell fresh meats and produce.[16] In New Orleans, Louisiana, the ReFresh Project was created in 2014 as a Whole Foods Market “urban format” store. The community “health hub” houses nine organizations to improve the health of the community through access to fresh produce, nutrition education, workforce development, gardening and more.[17] In 2004, the State of Pennsylvania launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative to support fresh food projects in low-income neighborhoods. The program was designed to attract supermarkets and grocery stores to lower-income urban and rural communities; however, it ended in 2010 due to a lack of funds.[18] New York has also made an enormous effort to combat food insecurity and food deserts in urban areas. The Food Bank for New York hosts free workshops that promote nutrition education on smart purchasing and how to select, store and preserve fresh produce. The New York City Department of Health also created the “Eat Well Play Hard” program, which encourages training and classes about nutrition and physical activities for childcare providers. Although the program is only for children under five years old and does not solve current food deserts in the city, it does promote a better and healthy future for the next generations.[19]

In Georgia, there are several tech startups in the Metro Atlanta perimeter to connect local farmers to available urban land. For example, Acrefy is a community wealth development platform that connects vacant lots with experienced urban farmers to grow small farms in urban environments. Goodr is a rescue food app that identifies surplus food from donors, such as restaurants and grocery stores, sends a team member to pick it up, and redirects it to soup kitchens, shelters, and senior centers. Lastly, Compostwheels is a compost pick-up service that drops off “branded receptacles” at their customer’s door and picks them up weekly to divert them to nutrient-rich compost at local farms.[20]

Food deserts are extremely detrimental not only to the people living in such communities but to the entire state and country as well. They contribute to increased health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems and increase unnecessary state budget spending. Policies such as farmers’ markets with sufficient funding, nutritional and physical training education and incentives for the investment of supermarkets and grocery stores in lower-income communities are necessary to decrease or end food markets in Georgia, and the United States.


















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