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An Unexpected Approach to Food Desert Relief

November 15, 2010

For the growing group of voices that seek to revamp the attitudes, policies, and practices of our country’s ailing food system, America’s food deserts are increasingly seen as a worthy target of attention and resources- even if we work to change widespread opinion on eating healthy, it will not matter if people are structurally limited in their ability improve their diet.

The term “food desert” was popularized by Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, a 2006 study lead by Mari Gallagher, and it is generally defined as an area or neighborhood where fast food is prevalent, but there is little or no access to the food required to maintain a healthy diet. 

Access to healthy food in these neighborhoods is inhibited by several factors (via Wikipedia):

  • ‘Physical access’ to shops can be difficult if the shops are distant, the shopper is elderly or infirm, the area has many hills, public transport links are poor, and the consumer has no car. Also, the shop may be across a busy road, difficult to cross with children or with underpasses that some fear to use because of a crime risk. For some, such as disabled people, the inside of the shop may be hard to access physically if there are steps up or the interior is cramped with no room for walking aids. Carrying fresh food home may also be hard for some.
  • ‘Financial access’ is difficult if the consumer lacks the money to buy healthful foods (generally more expensive, calorie for calorie, than less healthful, sugary, and fatty ‘junk foods’) or if the shopper cannot afford the bus fare to remote shops selling fresh foods and instead uses local fast food outlets. Other forms of financial access barriers may be inability to afford storage space for food, or for the very poor, living in temporary accommodation that does not offer good cooking facilities.
  • Mental attitude or food knowledge of the consumer may prevent them accessing fresh vegetables. They may lack cooking knowledge or have the idea that eating a healthful diet isn’t important.

Food deserts are an issue particularly relevant to us here in the Midwest, as the South side of Chicago is one of the most heavily affected areas in the country.  A degree of relief may come to Chicago’s food deserts, however, thanks to an unconventional source, as reported this week in the New York Times.

Walgreens, the omnipresent pharmacy and retailer, has begun offering food items at ten select locations in the city as part of an experiment to create “food oases,” which hopefully will ease the strain placed on food desert residents. The refitted stores sell around 750 food products, including fresh fruit and vegetables.

While grocery shopping at the pharmacy may strike some as odd, there are several factors that favor Walgreens’ food selection becoming a successful, permanent step towards food desert relief: Walgreen’s already has stores in many affected areas, and is often one of the only national chain stores present. Walgreens is also able to venture into offering food for reasons beyond pure altruism- the company could see a boon to business as the only provider of healthy food in the area.

While the success of Walgreens’ food experiment is not guaranteed, it is a testament to the positive growth in public awareness of food deserts, and the efforts being put forth to change them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 2:40 pm

    But canned chili and boxed/processed dinners doesn’t really qualify as healthy food. What about fresh veggies and/or meat? Will Walgreens offer that? I hope so!!

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