There is more to food insecurity than food deserts

By Deneece Ferrales

The Brookings Institute recently examined articles and reports written by academics, advocates, and policy makers about food scarcity in America. They criticized the reliance on the concept of food deserts to determine needed actions to address food scarcity.

This is an outdated way of examining the food landscape as it fails to recognize that most people shop outside their geographic area, the report states. Further, it fails to consider that most people now have access to online ordering and grocery delivery. Lastly, the reliance on the concept of health deserts fails to address the primary contributing factor to food scarcity, which is financial insecurity.

Food desert narratives are built on the false assumption that people shop within their own neighborhood due to lack of transportation. While transportation is a valid issue, most people are able to shop at the grocery store of their choosing through rideshare, bus, or other means.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed a secondary data analysis of the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey and found that most households do not shop for food at the retailer closest to their home. Instead, most have a preferred retailer and will travel to buy food from the preferred supermarket.

The study found that an estimated 66% of SNAP recipients travel to grocery stores in their own cars. In fact, the study looked at participants at a variety of income levels and found that over 60% of participants in each income group traveled to the grocery store in their own vehicle. Less than 20% of participants in each category walked, biked, or used public transportation. This indicates food availability in a particular neighborhood may not be as impactful as has been the conventional wisdom over the last several years.

Reports around food insecurity have largely focused on food deserts as a framework for addressing food insecurity. Therefore, food deserts have provided the groundwork for efforts by nonprofits and government entities to address food insecurity. This ignores the data around shopping habits and the prevalence of technology in the modern food environment.

Also, the term “food desert,” as defined nationally, does not examine community-level efforts such as small grocers and community gardens. In fact, USDA has moved away from the term “food desert” and instead defines varying levels of food access, concentrating on areas of low food access.

The bottom line is that even with available retailers in food deserts, millions of people would still suffer from food insecurity due to affordability. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive than unhealthy, “junk” food. As a result, nutritional inequality is more likely a product of income inequality. Thus, adding grocery stores and corner-store type options is not likely to address the problem.

The better framework for addressing food insecurity as a community can be found in studies from other countries, such as Australia. Begley, et. al., wrote an article for Nutrients in 2019 that describes the concept of “pillars of food insecurity.” The authors define food security as needing these four pillars in order to be successful. The pillars include availability, utilization, access, and stability.

  • Availability refers to the foods that are accessible to people. While the quality of the food is important, people also need diverse food options. Availability also relates to production policy and farming systems that distribute in our area.

  • Utilization concerns food practices once the food is in the individual's possession. Food literacy is a focus of this pillar because utilization is at the center of programs that fight food insecurity.

  • Access acknowledges physical and economic factors that may impact the ability for an individual to obtain food.

  • Stability refers to the need for consistently accessible food. There must be infrastructure that supports the facets of food security to ensure dependability.

By using the four pillars to address food insecurity, the need for collaboration takes center stage. It is not enough to place a grocery store in an area that is not geographically close to grocery stores. It is important to also consider whether or not food production can sustain the grocery store; whether the store’s potential customers have the knowledge and tools available to cook nutritious meals; and, given that food prices fluctuate for all grocery stores, that the store’s potential customers have the means to purchase healthier foods and a variety of foods even during difficult times.

This would mean that customers who qualify for SNAP benefits have the ability and assistance needed to apply for those benefits or that customers learn to grow a small garden or have access to a community garden to supplement their grocery shopping.

All of the pillars interact together to alleviate food insecurity so organizations and government entities in these spaces must also act together to address food insecurity in communities.

The collaborative pillars framework offers a better means for Waco-McLennan County to address food insecurity than does a focus on food deserts.

Deneece Ferrales, Ph.D., is director of health initiatives with Prosper Waco.