A major challenge social workers are currently facing is the phenomenon called ‘food deserts’. Food deserts are areas where people don’t have access to healthy food. The social dynamics around food deserts bring them to the forefront of social work in larger cities. Lower income areas are deeply impacted by this phenomenon. A closer look at major factors surrounding food deserts will be explored below.
What is a Food Desert:
A Food desert is defined by the CDC as ‘areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a healthy diet’ (1). These are usually urban areas where there is usually an abundance of fast food restaurants and small corner stores, but not the large grocery stores often found in the suburbs or in less populated areas. Unfortunately, those types of business do not typically offer fresh foods and vegetables. The residents of these areas have little choice but to utilize the food options in their immediate surroundings as many are lower income and don’t have cars to travel to other areas where healthy foods are available (2).
Simply put, unhealthy foods lead to unhealthy people. Unhealthy people often make other poor decisions as they are affected by the poor quality of their health. A diet consisting only of unhealthy foods can contribute to a poor quality of life. Fast food and highly processed foods found at small neighborhood stores can easily lead to obesity. This is no minor issue. Obesity related health issues run close to 200 billion dollars annually in the United States which is over 20% of the total health care dollar expended (3).
Several unfortunate circumstances has led to the abundance of food deserts. One factor is the emergence of large grocery store chains in the United States. While they offer a wide variety of healthy foods to many people they are not typically found in the heart of large cities. The inner city where there tends to be lower income individuals is not an ideal location large grocery store chains from an economic standpoint. Another factor is the real estate large grocery stores require is much more expensive in large cities which proves to be another deterrent. Even if a feasibility study found there to be the equivalent income levels of the suburbs, the operating costs due to the premium on space in the big cities would still make it rather far-fetched.
One significant step local social workers can take is to take initiative to help educate people in their area. The reality is that many people food deserts don’t even know the quality of food is affecting their quality of life. Spreading the message is not something a social worker can accomplish alone although they certainly can educate individual clients. Social worker must partner with local organizations who are on the front lines in the communities. They must help these organizations understand the dynamics of food desserts and game plan with them to spread information and ideally healthy foods as well. These types of efforts can help residents of food deserts to become aware of the chemical content of processed foods. Once people become aware of the amount of preservatives, colors, and unnatural flavors added to their foods, they often become advocates of change.
Food deserts are a major issue for social workers in the United States. In order to help the populations they serve, social workers must address access to healthy foods. They must also work hard to ensure their populations understand the importance of good food choices and the dangers of a diets consisting of mostly processed and fast foods. These properly placed efforts can have a tremendous impact on their communities and the overall health of America.