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How Will Dallas Combat Its Food Deserts?

If you don’t know the phrase “food desert,” then you should head over to the Guardian, which has re-printed an article from the March 2014 edition of Atlanta Magazine about a peculiar and baffling feature of urban poverty in the age of sprawl: huge areas of city’s with no access to a decent grocery store. It’s a problem that is getting increased attention here in Dallas. It came up during the Mayor’s South-Dallas-bridging-building-somthing-or-other panel back in January, and it is what is driving efforts by council member Tennell Atkins and Paul Quinn college’s Michael Sorrell to open a grocery store in South Dallas.

But if you needed some perspective on just how dire the situation is, this latest report nails it:

In Atlanta, the ninth-biggest metropolis of the world’s richest country, thousands of people can’t get fresh food, and some are getting sick as a result. Which raises a simple question: why can we build multimillion-dollar highway systems and multibillion-dollar stadiums, but not more grocery stores? If we can build a museum dedicated to a soft drink and one that celebrates college football and another that trumpets civil rights, can’t we help our neighbours with what seems to be a most essential and basic right: putting an affordable and healthy dinner on the table? 

The article is quick to point out three familiar factors that contribute the problem, race, class and sprawl, but food deserts are also another example of how mis-guided transportation policies beginning in the 1950s and 1960s have created a way to extract value from communities:

But of all the factors that contribute to Atlanta’s food-desert problem, none is more important than transportation. Our low population density combined with a lack of comprehensive public transit means many people simply cannot get to places where fresh food is available.

And the problem of lack of access to grocery stores isn’t just one of convenience, it’s creating a dire health crisis in our poorest neighborhoods:

One of the paradoxes of food deserts is that the people living in them often have the highest rates of obesity – and its associated illnesses.

A 2009 study in the journal Pediatrics showed that children who live in neighbourhoods with lots of corner stores consume more calories and are more likely to be obese than children who live in neighborhoods with supermarkets. When King and Abernathy railed against poverty in the 1960s, many poor people were malnourished and severely underweight. Today they are still malnourished – but overweight.

It’s not about Dallas, but the situation in Atlanta is similar enough to the state of things in our city that the article is worth reading in full.

7 comments on “How Will Dallas Combat Its Food Deserts?

  1. The problem is, in the places where government stepped in and forced outlets to start selling more fresh produce, it sat and rotted on the shelves, because no one bought it. Low-income people like the IDEA of being able to get fresh produce, but the actual act of GETTING and cooking it, not so much.

    — Phelps

  2. The grocery business is a low margin and high competition business. The people that decide where to locate stores do not just roll the dice on a location. They research it and have little room for error. We can’t expect a grocery chain to build a store in an area where they know they will lose money.
    I chose to live where I do because it is on a bus line that has a grocery store on the bus line, among other reasons. There are plenty of low income people that ride the bus to the grocery store but I rarely see them in the fresh produce section. Preparing and eating fresh and/or healthy food takes effort and for the most part is learned at home.
    The food desert is more of a symptom of the change in families that has occured over the last 5 decades than a cause of obesity.

  3. St. Peter would never let something like, say, facts get in the way of urban hucksterism.

    Similar to plastic bags issue (http://dallasne.ws/1okEelI, http://bit.ly/1meuEST) the problem is more cultural, but that of course would be impolite to say out loud. So instead of addressing the cultural aspects of poor nutrition – that the issue is one of demand rather than supply and therefore cultural, that it may have to do with an entire way of life – it is more convenient to attribute it to his standard bêtes noire urban sprawl and capitalism generally. That way he can avoid the appearance of blaming individuals and, at the same time, cede more power to the state. See id.

    How utterly predictable.

  4. But every time WalMart wants to open in an urban area, the usual grievance mongering Lefitsts come out in force to stop it. Newflash! WalMart has fresh produce.

  5. The best way to fight it is with diet and exercise. But don’t be afraid to indulge in cookie or small slice of pie now and then.

  6. Food deserts (the term originated in Scotland in the 1990s, see http://www.fooddeserts.org) are essentially a socio-economic phenomenon, where most;ly poor people live who can only afford cheap food, and cheap food is less healthy, and there may be strong personal preferneces there for cheap calorific but less nutritious foods also. There is a ‘health premium’ whereby healthy green fresh foods cost more per calorie than cheap fatty sugary salty ready meals and takeaways, and this health premium is actually wider in poor areas. The poor also have less travel oppoortunities, to get to remote supermarkets where healthier food may be sold more cheaply. So its not just about access to food, or even its proce / affordability, but a range of socialm cultural, economic factors too.