If "what's for dinner?" is a fairly easy and non-stressful question to answer, you likely don't live in a food desert. But for roughly 24 million people in the United States (about 7% of the total population), cooking up a healthy, homemade meal is a nightly challenge. The name "food desert" itself can be misleading, as it seemingly implies that there's no food available whatsoever. However, the problem isn't the lack of food, but rather the limited access to healthy, sustainable, and reliable food sources. According to the USDA, a food desert is "an urban tract with at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, living more than one-half mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store." At first glance it sounds crazy to think that the United States, home to behemoth supermarkets like Costco, Walmart, Kroger, and beyond, would lack any kind of food access. The issue, however, lies in the fact that those stores are not distributed equally, especially in communities that lack wealth or a compelling reason for those stores to "move into the neighborhood." But like any complex issue, addressing food deserts is nuanced and not as simple as inserting a grocery store in an area that doesn't have one. Oftentimes the problem runs way deeper and a result of a bevy of historical, political, and societal ramifications. And for the most part, data shows that food deserts (or food insecurity) disproportionately affects people of color, further highlighting the underlying racial and economic inequality still extant in the United States. Irene Lewis, writing for agricultural publication AGDAILY, highlighted this racial disparity in her 2021 piece, "Food Apartheid": "A study done in Baton Rouge, Louisiana...found that nearly a quarter (23 percent) of East Baton Rouge Parish residents lived in food deserts. These neighborhoods tend to have higher populations of Black people, indigenous people, and people of color." This is not to say that food deserts only affect minority communities, but more often than not they are the ones on the margins. There's a direct correlation between healthy food access and economics, as eating healthy often means having the finances to afford said healthy options. As it has been throughout history, those on the bottom have typically been priced out of the top food selection. As we emerge from (and still battle) with the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities between the "haves" and "have-nots" have been highlighted and deepened even further. And unfortunately, minority groups have felt the weight of this disparity. For instance, indigenous, Pacific Islander, and black populations in America have faced higher mortality rates during the pandemic than white counterparts, per APM research lab. Sadly, inequality has existed for millennia, and is something addressed head-on by Jesus. Jesus often went out of his way to encounter and minister to those "on the outs" of society, and throughout the Bible we read God's desire for justice, mercy, and compassion for humanity. Whether or not you're following the way of Jesus, food insecurity is something we should take seriously. If we're working to build a fairer, more inclusive society, we have an impetus to help make a difference. Yet assessing the situation can feel overwhelming, given the myriad of factors that contribute to the existence of food deserts in the first place. Corruption. Greed. The American diet. Lack of education. Gentrification. The list goes on. Before you get swallowed up by the daunting, formidable barriers, take a deep breath. We're not here to save the world in a day, but rather to shine a light on an area of need often swept under the rug or not prioritized. Our goal is to acknowledge these complex factors, assess the situation, and look at ways we can address it from both a practical and scriptural standpoint. If knowledge is power, then simply being aware is a great first step. Let's dive in.



As mentioned before, this is a very complex issue, so the why behind how this situation arose does not come with a simple, easy answer, such as: "it's because of laziness!" or "it's because of corporate greed!" That said, there are a variety of contributing factors that have hastened the rise of food deserts. After the Allied victory in World War II, America saw unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s -- depending on where you lived and the color of your skin. A robust U.S. economy reinvigorated after the devastating years of the Great Depression quickly became a manufacturing titan. The subsequent inflow of wealth paved the way for more and more citizens being able to attain the "American Dream" of owning a home, a car, and yes, even a washing machine! However, the construction of the interstate highway system coupled with this newfound wealth (predominantly for white Americans), led to a phenomena known as "white flight." Essentially, middle-to-upper class white citizens left urban cities in droves in favor of tidy new neighborhood settings: the suburbs. And as these people left, so too did their wealth, businesses, and political influence. The result? An overwhelming majority of black residents were left to survive in cities that no longer had the same infrastructures. Flash forward to today, and this same problem has continued, especially in urban areas like Detroit, Baltimore, and New York. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington D.C.,the average median household income of black Americans was $46,000, compared to the significantly higher $76,000 for white families. If eating healthy (usually) means shelling out more money at the grocery store, it follows that those with less financial flexibility would have less capacity for healthier options. But as mentioned before, the solution doesn't always boil down to simply providing a lower-cost, healthy grocery store or market. In 2010, the Obama administration launched the Let's Move! campaign as an effort to combat childhood obesity and provide access to healthier school lunch options. As part of then-First Lady Michelle Obama's push for a healthier America, there was a push for 1,500 new grocery stores to be built in underserved communities. However, only 848 of those proposed grocery stores (56% of the original goal) opened. Looking at a stat like that, it's important not to cast grocery chains as the villains of the story. Grocery stores already operate with very low profit margins (around 2.2%) making them one of the least profitable industries in the country. Building in an area that cannot sustain them is often looked at as a doomed proposal, leaving those communities instead supplied with low-cost offerings like Dollar Tree or Dollar General, or other convenience stores. While having these budget offerings seems better than nothing, they are not designed to offer nutritious options. Therefore, people end up consuming carbohydrate-heavy, preservative-laden food with an ingredients list longer than an Apple "terms & conditions" page. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of health issues, such as Diabetes, becoming prevalent among these communities. A recent assessment from the Food Empowerment Project surmised the situation: "People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford—and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Processed foods (such as snack cakes, chips and soda) typically sold by corner delis, convenience stores and liquor stores are usually just as unhealthy." Another relevant case study done on supermarket accessibility in the city of Detroit by Zenk, et. al, underlined just how devastating this negative health correlation is: "Inadequate accessibility to supermarkets may contribute to less-nutritious diets and hence to greater risk for chronic, diet-related diseases. In a recent qualitative study, Detroit residents reported that lack of access to supermarkets was a barrier to healthy eating," their research found. It's important to put ourselves in the shoes of people living in this kind of environment and not assume that they should just "walk a little farther" to the grocery store, or "work a little harder," to be able to afford better options. Those of us who have cars or access to delivery services like Amazon Fresh may take for granted the legwork required to snag a few bags of groceries. More often than not in a low-income area, getting to the grocery store requires getting on a bus or two, which already consumes a significant amount of time. Then the groceries must be hauled onto the bus (and are typically limited to what a person can carry), and brought back home. It's an extensive, exhausting process, and it makes sense why people would turn to the convenience of a McDonald's or 7-11 after a long day of work. In a 2012 study by Walker, et al. in the Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 57% of the research participants living in food deserts were black, with 51.4% not owning a car and 34.3% living 1-2 blocks from the nearest bus stop. Looking at contributing factors like lack of transportation, income inequality, and lack of business development has led many to instead refer to food deserts as "food apartheid," feeling as though it more accurately reflects the gravity of the situation. Circling back to the "white flight" phenomenon that started back in the latter half of the 20th century, we see that to a large extent, the issue of food deserts are inextricably tied to race. Here's another finding from the Detroit case study: "Race appears to be an important factor with respect to supermarket accessibility in the context of more impoverished neighborhoods; 76% of neighborhoods with a high proportion of African Americans were among the most impoverished." That being said, it's important to zoom out and look at the nutrition landscape as a whole in the United States. Even those with access to "healthy options" are misinformed or misled on what is actually healthy. Sugary cereals masquerade as "organic" or "natural" options. Further deepening the issue is that these unhealthy food companies employ marketing tactics that disproportionately prey on minorities -- particularly black and latino communities. A 2019 study in the University of Connecticut's Rudd Report found that: "companies often target Black and Hispanic consumers with marketing for their least nutritious products, primarily fast-food, candy, sugary drinks, and snacks." Just how disproportionately were they being targeted? According to the report, "black children in 2013 viewed 70% more food ads than their White peers viewed. In 2017, these disparities grew to 86% more ads viewed by Black children compared to White children, and 119% more ads viewed by Black teens than by White teens. On average in 2017, Black children and teens saw 16.4 and 17.1 food-related TV ads per day, respectively." We see from reports like this that it's not only an issue of access, but indoctrination. If our mental state and brain wiring has a profound effect on what we eat, we must consider the information being blasted at these communities and how it's warping their perception and driving demand for said unhealthy food higher and higher. We also must consider that this is a deep fundamental problem in the United States, a country in which processed foods make up 70% of our diet, and where the Food and Drug Administration has a loophole known as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) which allows untested, potentially harmful ingredients into food products. Point is, even building grocery stores with healthier options, leveling the economic playing field, or encouraging business development will not solve a problem that is already endemic to America. There needs to be fundamental, legislative changes that don't allow shortcuts and prioritizes the health of all Americans. Before you get too caught up in the doom & gloom, let's look at what is being done about it (or at least, trying to be done.)



While addressing food deserts isn't necessarily at the top of every agenda (especially in the midst of a pandemic), there are efforts being made at both the national and local levels to tackle this issue. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), an offshoot of the Obama-era public health campaign that has continued through both the Trump and Biden administrations, was created to address the root of the issue and incentivize the investment into low-income areas and food deserts. The specific purpose was to provide "financing to grocers or real estate developers seeking to open or expand stores in areas without adequate access to affordable, nutritious foods." The program has had a generally positive effect, with over $195 million given to community development organizations, $1 billion funneled into private investment and tax credits, and hundreds of food access projects created. While projects like the HFFI set a precedent for the issue to be addressed at a federal level, various nonprofits, churches, and charities worked behind the scenes at the local level to keep their communities and still continue to do so today. Nonprofit/grocery store The Daily Table has three locations throughout the Greater Boston Area, and has served over 43,000 people in the surrounding communities. Using a unique model that's sustainable for both sides, The Daily Table pairs accessibility with economic incentive. Here's part of their mission statement: "By partnering with a network of growers, manufacturers, and other suppliers, we source high-quality food at low costs and make it available to everyone in our communities at prices designed for even a SNAP budget." Their model is designed so that every dollar donated is matched with two dollars of earned revenue. This compounds, making both the donor and shopper participants in a sustainable business model that can spend more time on meeting needs and less time on fundraising efforts. In other big urban environments, such as New York, places like NYC Love Kitchen are helping create a bridge to healthy eating and nourishment. Serving an area that includes many non-US citizens who lack the language proficiency to acquire jobs, the Manhattan nonprofit has existed for 30 years serving the most vulnerable in their community. Though the food bank or soup kitchen model seems like a temporary, stopgap measure, NYC Love Kitchen is leveraging their weekly meal offerings to provide long-term care offerings, such as English as a second language (ESL) training, Bible studies, alcohol recovery support groups, food stamp assistance, and shelter referrals. This may sound more like it's addressing homelessness, but it's all linked together. Having access to both healthy, nutritious meals and resources that help people get a job paves the way for more economic stability and therefore more buying options when it comes to healthy, nourishing foods. While these programs are immensely helpful, we have to consider our original point that this is still a complex problem, and isn't going to be solved overnight. Nonprofits and governmental organizations are starting to fill the gaps and offer hope and a legitimately better quality of life. However, think of the issue like a boat with a leak. You can keep patching the holes to keep the ship from sinking, but ultimately the boat needs a full-on makeover and structural repair in order to fully set sail. And even the most well-intentioned human plans will not completely solve the issue of fundamental inequality. That's not an excuse not to avoid being part of the solution; it's a realization that in the current state of our world, we will never reach 100% equality in terms of access, resources, and opportunities. However, how does it change the game if we're all equal in inherent value and worth?



Hearing this information might be a lot to take in. Perhaps until today, you had little idea of what a food desert was. And while you may have empathy for those suffering the consequences of this, you also may wonder how you can make a difference in such a systemic problem. Or on the other end, you may wonder what the impetus to care is when so many other massive issues (a pandemic, for one) are running rampant. If you've read any of our other blogs in this series, you're likely familiar with the concept of the Imago Dei. That's just fancy Latin for "image of God." And in each blog, we've made it a point to say that per scripture, everyone is made in the image of God, and therefore everyone matters. Everyone has a fundamental value that cannot be taken away from them -- regardless of economic status, skin color, cultural background, language spoken, and beyond.  While Jesus didn't go around solving every societal issue of his day, he came to offer a more long-lasting solution in which everyone is given worth and dignity based on who they were created as, not merely what society says about them. And though Jesus offered a deeper, more eternal hope, he also acknowledged that we would still face challenges and difficulties. "In this life you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world," he told his followers. To be clear, that's not Jesus saying to ignore the issues of the world, but rather an acknowledgement that life on earth is hard. It's challenging. We see things are not as they should be as we glance across a myriad of problems before us.  But evident throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, and also in scripture as a whole, we see God's heart long for justice and mercy for the most vulnerable in society. Micah 6:8 says "what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you God?" Jesus models that verse of justice lived out throughout his ministry, and we see a deliberate part of his mission to reach those on the "outs" of society.   Take, for example, the time he "cleansed the temple" of deliberate manipulation. The religious elite of the temple were ripping off the poor in a variety of ways and using their leverage to make a bigger profit. Sound familiar?  In response, flipped over tables of the money lenders and declared that they'd made his Father's house a "den of robbers."  Because the temple had money stored up that could assist the debt-consumed poor but chose to instead nickel and dime them, Jesus rebuked their actions and exposed their fraudulent practices. It's important to note that Jesus was not out of control or acting on a whim, but rather deliberate in his convictions that truth, justice and mercy reign in his Father's house -- not greed. In this story we see that Jesus addressed not just those who were hurting, but the systems perpetuating the hurt. Evident throughout the gospels, particularly Matthew's, is a deep emphasis on caring for the neediest among us.  Jesus declares that what you do for the "least" in society, you also do for him. A central point in his Sermon on the Mount manifesto is that the poorest, meekest, and most overlooked will be blessed and comforted.  Those living in food deserts fall under that category of "overlooked", and if we're following Jesus' lead, we have a mandate to care about what they're going through. You may look at the obstacles and forces working against these people: behemoth corporations, gentrification, systemic racism, income inequality, lack of education, and vicious cycles of poverty, and wonder how you possibly stack up? As the saying goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. There's ways to address the issue that are tangible, such as volunteering your time, and there's the simple fact that even making yourself more aware is helping bring light to this issue. Practically though, here are just a few ways you can help to even the playing field and chip away at a system that perpetuates unhealthiness and brokenness:

1) Donate to a Food Bank

Yes, this may feel like more of a short term solution, but it's a way to immediately address a need and bring nourishment to those in desperate need of it. Jesus once tells a story about a man left for dead on the side of the road. The man who ultimately stopped to help him didn't say "hmm, I think I can only help lobby for better public safety and help you next time." No, he stopped instantly and met an obvious need. In the same way, food banks are a great way to improve a community's wellbeing. Studies have shown that mental function is often tied to nutrition. If people can have access to healthy food, it in turn helps them become better functioning members of their communities, and therefore part of the solution.  Here's a link to Feeding America's Food Bank Finder: Find Your Local Food Bank | Feeding America

2) Volunteer at a Non-Profit

You may not have time to be the founder and innovator of a project or mission that addresses this issue. That's okay. There are some excellent, robust outreaches in major U.S. cities that are perhaps proximate to you. We have an extensive list of nonprofits we're partnered with, many of which directly address food insecurity. Even an extra hour on a weekend can make a massive difference and help these missions, ministries and outreaches stay afloat.

3) Spread the Word

As mentioned before, knowledge is power. You may have friends, relatives, and neighbors who have little clue about the presence of food deserts -- particularly if they live in communities in which access to resources is a given. Be bold and invite them to get coffee to talk about it. Increasing public awareness about this issue will only help magnify the drastic need for change. It's already on the radar of politicians, but expanding the conversation even further can only help bring this issue into the light. If you feel really compelled, write a letter to your local representatives and ask what's being done about it in your community. Is public transportation available and accessible for the underserved? Are laws too lenient in allowing big corporations to prey on unsuspecting victims who don't know any better?

Again, these are just a few of many possible ideas on how to get started if you feel compelled to take action. If you're already a follower of Jesus and believe in the power of prayer, pray that the aforementioned Micah verse about justice would come to light. Ask God to help guide you to the most pressing areas of need. Circumstances won't change overnight, and food deserts will likely go on existing so long as there's deeper rooted inequality. Nevertheless, we see that there's an intrinsic reason to care and to reaffirm our commitment to those thirsting in the desert, looking for an oasis. 


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