Food Insecurity in the Bronx
The story of Jettie Young illustrates the widespread problem of food insecurity and how it affects individuals from any area or economic background across the United States. When Jettie Young was looking to purchase a house for her small family in Austin, Texas, affordability was foremost on her mind. She and her husband decided on a starter home in the Hornsby Bend area, a neighborhood made up of many families with young children, much like her own.
What she did not think about before making this move from Central Austin, a place in which she lived within two miles of simple necessities like doctors, commercial grocery stores, and more, was the complexity of living in a “food desert.” She now lives nine miles from any major supermarket, and must rely on public transportation to get there as she does not own a car. That trip can take up to an hour. This results in many visits to the much closer dollar store, a hotspot for local children, who frequently browse the aisles filled with processed, sugary foods, and drinks (AHA, 2016). In Texas, child obesity rates are increasing (State of Obesity, 2014), while the median fruit and vegetable intake is stagnating at one per day (CDC, 2013).
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Jettie Young and her community are not alone in suffering from the dramatic effects of living in a food desert, defined by Merriam-Webster as “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.” Approximately 23.5 million low-income Americans live at a greater distance than one mile from a supermarket (Frndak, 2014). Geographically, food deserts are regions greater than one mile from a supermarket in urban/suburban locations, and greater than 10 miles in rural locations (Frndak, 2014).
Instead of having the ability to shop at a traditional supermarket, people living in food deserts are forced to buy high-fat processed foods filled with sugar and known to contribute to obesity. Initially, people may not necessarily know they are moving to a food insecure area, or not realize the drastic consequences living in one of these areas might entail, as food deserts inflict a type of slow violence on people. Slow violence is a gradual process—consequences can be hidden or delayed for years, even decades (Nixon, 2011).
This paper explores food deserts in the Bronx, and their resulting effects on the community. What factors have influenced the Bronx to become one of the worst food deserts in the United States? To what problems in the community have these food deserts contributed? What can we learn from the examples of the negative effects of food deserts on these communities and how can we begin to fix it at both the local and governmental levels? I hypothesize that multiple factors, including that the Bronx is an area with many people of color with little disposable income and lack of access to transportation, has led to the prevalence of food deserts in this community.
I argue that the outcomes of the food deserts on the community are grave, including but not limited to obesity and chronic diseases for both children and adults. I argue that food security is a universal human right. My paper concludes with a discussion of the potential for alleviating the food desert problem in the Bronx, ranging from a local level to a regional level, including things like starting new supermarkets in food deserts, supplying healthy food to grocery stores already located in food deserts, and providing low-income families with vehicles so they are able to go to the grocery store efficiently.
One place in America that is extremely affected by food deserts is the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Commonly thought of to be one of the worst food deserts in the United States (Rivera, 2016), the disparity between food access for the rich and poor is extreme—nearly 29 percent of children are food insecure, while in nearby Staten Island the figure is a mere 9 percent (NYC Food Policy, 2017).
As a result, the residents incur various health issues, including the highest rate of diabetes-related deaths among all of the boroughs (NYC Food Policy, 2017). While the Bronx is home to the largest supplier of produce in New York’s five boroughs, the NYC Terminal Produce Market, the fruits and vegetables produced are mainly consumed by citizens currently not residing in the Bronx (Rivera, 2016). In New York City there are higher rates of obesity in low-income minority neighborhoods than more affluent, predominately white neighborhoods—21-30% among adults in the former neighborhoods, compared to 9% of adults located in the latter neighborhoods (Ghai, 2011).
One common misconception regarding food deserts is the population affected. The story of Jettie Young refutes this common misconception, as there is a prevailing stereotype that the only people affected by food deserts and food insecurity reside in inner cities, or are people who do not work. In reality, there are large numbers of people who rely on governmental food assistance who live in mostly white, rural areas (Allen, 2016).
Over 864,000 New York state residents live in homes that are food insecure despite at least one person working (Allen, 2016). This being said, food deserts disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color (Deener, 2017). The Bronx is an area with a large population of low-income people of color, thus serving as an example of the food insecurity problem in the United States.
A main cause of food insecurity is infrastructural exclusion, one process that leads to urban inequality—organizations and infrastructures in poorer areas hinder urban interdependence (Deener, 2017). As public access to resources depends on infrastructures that connect people and places (Deener, 2017), when infrastructure fails to do this job and people experience a lack of clean water, electricity, or nutritious foods, it can begin to be seen as a problem. Population growth and market formation, two markers of successful, healthy growing communities, are directly related to the prosperity of the infrastructural systems found in the community, and their ability to move people and materials between places (Deener, 2017).
While food distribution is not technically considered a public infrastructural system (Deener, 2017), it relies on many other public infrastructural systems to flourish. Storage buildings, processing plants, roads, rail lines, and shipping facilities are all necessary infrastructural parts essential in the production of food (Food Strategy, 2018), and many of these processes are lacking in food insecure areas, due to the destruction often found in low-income areas combined with the transfer of jobs and money out of inner cities into the suburbs.
Another root cause of food insecurity is the globalization of the food industry. Food suppliers and distributors have become more globalized than they were before, as industrial countries have become major trading powers (Black, 2016). Globalization manifests the forces of market and trade liberalization, capital flow, and urbanization (Black, 2016). The qualities of our food systems have declined, as these forces increase affordability of food but simultaneously decrease its nutritional quality (Black, 2016). Globalization has positive effects on some aspects of the food industry, providing diverse food options in many areas (Black, 2016).
But many populations are left with fewer options, and people are forced to buy cheaper food of poorer nutritional value (Black, 2016). As globalization of the food industry prevails, there is clearly an increased presence of processed food in local markets (Black, 2016). This shift has created food systems in many areas that will be unsustainable for long periods of time (Black, 2016). Farmers are left at a disadvantage as a result of this increased globalization, unable to compete with the international standards and market power of large corporations (Black, 2016). The inability of farmers to compete leads to the diminishment of healthy foods in certain areas, and the capital shifting from local to international.
Another cause of food insecurity is low minimum wage. This affects people in the Bronx specifically, as the cost of living in New York City is higher than the minimum wage can support. Although this year the minimum wage was raised to $13.00 per an hour from a meager $9.00, residents in the Bronx are still effected by the previous wage that equated to $16,380 for a year of full time work (Allen, 2016).
Despite the increase in the minimum wage, if a single person with two children is working for minimum wage, they will still earn well below the federal poverty line (Allen, 2016). In New York City alone, 45% of adults who are food insecure are employed (Allen, 2016). This statistic communicates the inaccuracy of the stereotype charging food insecure, lower-income people with being lazy. Low wages correlate with hunger and malnutrition, as this is cited as the top cause (Allen, 2016).
Food deserts have many consequences on both the children and adults living in the affected communities. Research shows a positive correlation between food deserts and poor academic performance. Children living in food deserts have a harder time staying focused and achieving academically (Frndak, 2014). They indicate having lower test scores on achievement tests than other children (Frndak, 2014). While malnutrition certainly plays a role in this under-achievement, malnourishment does as well as it has been shown that greater consumption of processed foods in youth has led to lower IQ scores in adulthood (Frndak, 2014).
Many children would not necessarily be affected by living in a food desert, it is the compounding factors of poverty that amplify the negative effects. Schools in areas with a lack of healthy grocery stores but also have a larger number of low income residents who do not own vehicles are at a greater risk for other youth in areas that are considered to be food deserts but do not have a large proportion of residents with low income or lack of transportation (Frndak, 2014). The majority of students affected were of African American or Hispanic ethnicity, who lived in urban areas with schools with the lowest expenditures per student (Frndak, 2014). These “urban” schools are the types of schools found most prevalently in the Bronx.
Over half of adults in New York are overweight or obese (Ghai, 2011). Obesity increases risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, and heart disease (Ghai, 2011). Processed foods do not resemble whole foods at all, and are designed to increase sales and get people hooked (Gunnars, 2018). Typically composed of refined ingredients and additives, these high-fat foods resemble alcohol, cocaine, nicotine and other stimulants when consumed (Gunnars, 2018). The disparity between rich and poor in New York City extends to obesity and obesity-related issues as well.
There are higher rates of obesity in low income neighborhoods like the Bronx than there are in higher-income areas like Manhattan (Ghai, 2011). In low-income areas like the Bronx, 25-30% of people are obese and 10-15% have been diagnosed with diabetes, while in richer areas like the Upper East Side, obesity affects a mere 9% of the population, while 5% suffer from diabetes (Ghai, 2011). The population’s access to healthy food is directly correlated to the problem of obesity in these communities, as fast food restaurants are widespread in the lower-income areas, while health food chain grocery stores are prevalent in the richer areas (Ghai, 2011).
There have been multiple initiatives implemented with goals to reduce food insecurity in the United States. One of these initiatives is former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” Initiative. This public health campaign was started with the goal of “solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight” (AMA, 2010). This movement proposed the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that expanded the availability of nutrition-rich foods to food deserts (AMA, 2010).
The purpose of this initiative was to develop and equip grocery stores and other sources of food found within low-income, food-desert-ridden communities, with fresh and healthy food (AMA, 2010). Additionally implemented was the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program, which helps promote the self-sufficiency of low-income communities by fighting food insecurity through developing community food projects (AMA, 2010). These initiatives have been helpful in the fight to combat food insecurity, but it remains a widespread problem in the United States.
There are many ways people can help in the fight against food deserts, both at local and national levels. One way is to start supermarkets in food desert regions. This solution is most practical stemming from a grassroots movement within a low-income community, that garners eventual governmental support for public funding. Another way might be to supply healthy food to smaller grocery stores already located in food deserts.
Providing low-income families with transportation services to get to grocery stores, planting community gardens in low-income areas, changing school lunch menus to reflect healthier, nutrient-dense options, and promoting education and consumption of fresh produce in these communities are only some examples of ways we can begin to combat the food desert problem in the Bronx, and in many areas of the United States.