Desert Inside an Oasis

The concept of “food deserts” has become synonymous with the struggles and food insecurities of the urban poor. Urban gardens and food justice organizations that focus on large metropolises are becoming very popular in the media. What many people don’t know is that 98% of food deserts are in rural areas and that even though farmworkers are surrounded by fruits and vegetables during their long and tedious work days, they often have little or no access to affordable and nutritious foods for their family.

A food desert is defined as an area where residents have to drive or walk far distances to the nearest supermarket chain or supercenter. A study by the Rural Sociological Society showed that 2/3 of the individuals living in rural food deserts do not get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, 1/3 don’t get enough dairy, and ¼ lack the recommended protein in their diet. Inaccessibility to nutritious foods is causing rural residents and especially farmworkers to suffer from a variety of problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

Food deserts in rural areas are largely the result of the consolidation of agriculture into large, factory farms with little crop variety. Instead of having market stands at smaller farms with a variety of crops for the locals to buy, industrialized factory farms tend to produce one crop on a large piece of land for distributors or restaurant chains around the country. Also, because there is little competition between supermarkets (due to the far distances between them) the price of food tends to be higher than in areas with a bigger variety of supermarkets. Supermarket chains don’t find it cost effective to open stores in areas that are spread out and only serve a relatively small group of people. What is left are convenience stores and gas stations that sell overpriced, processed packaged foods that tend to be high in fat, sodium, and empty calories.

Many farmworkers don’t have cars readily available and public transportation is virtually nonexistent in rural areas. In fact, 2.3 million (2.2%) of all U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. One solution the USDA has come up with to address this problem is to create mobile grocery trucks that bring produce and other foods to rural residents. Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest Pennsylvania has also had mobile pantries in Pennsylvania’s rural areas since 2008. Some of these mobile food alternatives are not only for people on food assistance but also generally low-income people . This, of course, is very important since more than 60% of farmworkers live in poverty, though most farmworkers don’t apply for food assistance programs

The problem with food deserts and accessibility is really threefold: physical accessibility (not being able to get to grocery stores because distance), economic accessibility (not being able to afford food), and health accessibility (lack of, or too costly, healthy food options). While programs like mobile grocery stores are important to mitigate hunger problems in rural areas, it’s important to realize the problems stem from a system that values high production of goods over variety and quality. The focus needs to be shifted from profit margins to the people suffering from the consequences of such highly industrialized and consolidated agriculture. We should not tolerate that farmworkers live among an oasis of food, yet are really living in a food desert, unable to access the very foods that they cultivate.

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