Why Access to Healthy Food Belongs on Government’s Equity Agenda

Making it easier for all people to reach their potential is good for communities. "Food deserts" work against that goal.
April 27, 2015
By Brittany Bennett  |  Contributor
Brittany Bennett is the development, policy and impact associate at Self-Help, a Durham, N.C., nonprofit.

I first encountered the stark difference in access to healthy foods as a college student. I went to school in an affluent part of town surrounded by grocery stores well-stocked with fresh produce, organics and other healthy food. One day a friend at a school across town needed a ride to the grocery store, and as I walked around I quickly realized that most of the options that I could buy at the Kroger near my school were not available at this Kroger in a low-income, African-American neighborhood. The produce that was available was unappetizing, bruised and droopy, and the natural fruit juice that I liked to buy was nowhere in sight. However, there was a seemingly unending supply of soda, juice, junk food and other cheap packaged items.

We know that health is linked to wealth, race and ethnicity. Black and Hispanic people are much more likely than whites to suffer from obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. These health disparities, alongside projections of a U.S. population that will be majority-minority by 2050, demonstrate the need to include healthy-food access in any local strategy for an equitable, prosperous future. While government leaders are thinking about education, transportation and workforce development, how can healthy food access also be included in these plans?

But before we consider the "how," let's first look at the "why." This is about equity and allowing all citizens the opportunity to live to their fullest potential. That isn't going to happen without access to affordable, nutritious food. A 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that nearly 24 million people were living in "food deserts" and that only 8 percent of African-Americans were living in a census tract with a supermarket. This results in a reliance on fast food and other less-healthy options -- something quickly evidenced by a drive through many low-income areas, both urban and rural, where you can usually find a McDonald's and a couple of junk-food-stocked convenience stores before you find a grocery store.

Moreover, increased access to healthy food is good for economic development. We need a healthy, productive workforce and will be more dependent on the groups who currently have limited access to healthy food to keep our economy going in the coming decades. And providing access to healthy food also can help to create a more vibrant local economy by supporting local businesses at all levels of the food system.

Many local governments recognize these connections and have funded community gardens and farmers' markets to promote healthy eating and wellness for their residents. These efforts are great places to start and can be built upon through other government actions. Here are three ideas that aim to aggressively promote equitable healthy food access:

Increased funding and support for an equitable food system This includes ideas such as increased support for farmers' markets to have the technical infrastructure to accept payments under SNAP, WIC and other food-benefit programs; establishment of community gardens in food deserts; creation of local food-policy councils to bring stakeholders together to develop common priorities, programs and food-related policy recommendations; and partnerships with banks and community-development financial institutions to create loan funds for businesses that increase healthy-food access in low-income communities. There is funding for anti-hunger and food-access efforts available from the Agriculture Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal sources that is being left on the table. Local governments should take advantage of it.

Zoning restrictions on fast food. Local governments can use their zoning powers to limit fast-food retailers' proximity to schools, parks and low-income neighborhoods. For this type of policy to work, there must also be incentives or other programs in place to assure that where fast food is limited, affordable healthy food is readily available and that there are sufficient transportation options for residents to get to supermarkets and grocery stores.

A "sin tax" on unhealthy junk foods or sugar. This idea has sparked debate among policy-makers and public-health leaders because we do not know how effective it would be in reducing the intake of unhealthy foods. However, a tax certainly sends a message that you are serious about wanting people to change their eating habits for the better. As the debates play out, we can look to the Navajo Nation, which recently implemented such a tax, to learn if this approach can change behavior.

The point here is not to suggest that increasing access to affordable healthy food is the solution for an equitable future -- there is no one solution -- but it should be part of a comprehensive plan to give low-income people and people of color the opportunity to live the most productive lives they can.