Not Just Desserts: Oases in the Food Deserts

small town groceryAndreas Perez de Fransius, Peace is Profitable Contributor, addresses food insecurity… in the richest country in the world. 

Access to food is often seen as a problem that mainly affects poor countries. However, a closer look reveals that vast groups of people in richer parts are also starved of healthy food options, exacerbating widespread obesity. At the same time, a number of creative solutions to these problems are coming forward from major private corporations, non-profits and the public sector.

At the World Food Summit of 1996, the member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that food security exists “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Since then, food security has become a priority for a variety of development projects in poor countries.

In a recent article, the Financial Times highlighted that a lot of work remains to be done in the world’s preeminent superpower. A number of areas in the United States are characterized as “food deserts”, in which residents have limited or no access to healthy foods. In a separate study, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 25 per cent of Americans are unable to buy healthy food in their area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople in food deserts suffer from higher rates of obesity, worsening an epidemic that already affects a third of US adults. It is no secret that obesity produces high costs, in terms of exploding health care expenditures and reduced productivity. This suggests that tackling food deserts can actually bring financial benefits, by reducing costs and offering more attractive food alternatives. In fact, an unlikely source of progressive thinking in this area comes from Walmart, which has opened 86 stores in food deserts, while increasing its fresh food range.

Other efforts focus more on increasing small-scale stores in underserved communities. A non-profit group, The Food Trust, has created a “healthy corner store network,” which improves the connection between urban and agricultural communities to bring fresh food to inner-city communities. Their educational programs also aim to raise awareness of the importance of healthy diets. By disseminating the findings of the adverse effects of food disparity, the Food Trust also tries to affect public policy.

Indeed, the Obama Administration has started to respond to this problem by launching the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. This federal plan expands access to food options in disadvantaged communities. Relevant future efforts include helping farmers’ markets to use technology to accept food stamps.

These efforts show that it is possible to bring an end to “food deserts.” To be successful we will need innovative projects by private corporations that find profitable ways to expand access to healthy food. At the same time, the public sector has a crucial role when it comes to providing incentives that actively make healthy options more profitable. In short, achieving food security will require the public sector to harness the creative potential of private actors and provide returns to social entrepreneurs.

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