Digital Outcasts and Food Deserts

Posted on Apr 7, 2012
Digital Outcasts and Food Deserts

Fourth in a series of sample excerpts from the book Digital Outcasts.

The gunshots I hear on this gray morning in February are startlingly loud, probably no more than a couple of blocks away from where I’m standing. Four figures in bulky coats are seen running across a nearby street. I must look alarmed because my tour guide sees the need to reassure me. “It happens,” he says, evincing the calm demeanor of someone who sees this sort of thing a lot. Me, I’m just a tourist on his East Baltimore turf; I’m here because I want to know if it’s possible for Orleans Street residents to buy a carrot.

A food desert is a term given to any part of the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult for consumers to obtain. Thought to be primarily an inner city phenomenon, food deserts can be found in rural as well as urban areas. They are widespread across the continental United States, though they are most prevalent among low-socioeconomic communities.

With no easy access to supermarkets, populations living in food deserts demonstrate a wide range of diet-related health problems: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, malnutrition and obesity. A USDA Economic Research Service report to Congress reveals 23.5 million people currently residing in food deserts, with 4 percent of the U.S. population living more than a mile from any quality food supplier.

Brandon Parker is walking through his Cherry Hill neighborhood on a Sunday morning. In his right hand is a cigarette. In his left, a bag of groceries from the Family Dollar Store. Behind him, his 3-year-old son, Rainier, reaches into the bag of Doritos his daughter Na-ayzin, 4, is holding.

“That’s all they ever ask for, soda and chips,” Parker said. “I just bought them breakfast and that’s what they wanted, chips.”

Parker said he would prefer to feed them fresh fruit. He buys organic fruit from the Fresh Food Mart off Patapsco Avenue when he can. But it is early and his kids are hungry. The Family Dollar is within walking distance, so they go there, not for any other reason than because it is close.

The key attributes of food deserts are affordability and access. According to U.S. census tracts, a community qualifies as a food desert if both of the following condition thresholds are met:

  • Low-income — communities having a poverty rate of 20 percent or a median family income below 80 percent of the area median
  • Low-access — communities with at least 500 persons (or 33% of the census tract’s population) living more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store

Residents of food desert areas often have no economic or logistic access to private transportation. They rely on public transit, if it exists and/or they can afford it, or they travel several miles on foot to reach a grocery store. As a result, consumers without cars depend on food sources within the closest proximity to their homes. Unfortunately these take the form of fast food restaurants, corner “dollar stores,” unhealthy street vendors and bodegas overstocked with junk food products.

Real Food Farm truck in Baltimore

Real Food Farm serves communities surrounding Baltimore's Clifton Park neighborhood, distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to 27,500 low-income residents with little access to healthy food. Such urban agricultural enterprises continue to emerge through the use of mobile technologies.

Residents of food deserts, however, may one day benefit from an unrelated yet parallel trend — the increased utilization of mobile technologies among African-American and Latino populations. According to a Pew Internet and American Life study conducted in 2010, use of mobile phones among minorities increased by 32%. People in these groups are also more likely than Caucasian users to rely on data applications, with more than a fifth of all Internet traffic taking place through the smartphone.

Traditional models of consumer behavior tend to assume unimpeded access; we don’t consider that buying decisions are formed with invalid or incomplete choices. If consumer guidance is inaccessible, then people have no choice but to downscale the quality of their purchasing habits. This is terrific for food fast outlets, who reap the financial benefits of easy access in food deserts where no other choices are available, but not so great for the health of the communities who live there. With these trends in mind, perhaps a non-traditional approach is required to truly modify behavior among the socioeconomically compromised.

We already see innovative nutrition programs taking place among food deserts. Uplift Solutions endeavors to attract grocery corporations to West Philadelphia neighborhoods through community involvement. New York City officials have revisited zoning regulations to make food businesses more profitable. The Oakland-based People’s Grocery created a roving market on wheels to bring farm-fresh food to where the people are, something also being done successfully by Real Food Farm in Baltimore. And in Illinois, the Let’s Move program joins Food for Every Child to stimulate opening of new grocery shops.

Shopping billboard at SEPTA station in Philadelphia

Poster in a Philadelphia subway station that resembles grocery shelves stocked with grocery products. Commuters with smartphones can download an app to scan the bar codes and order delivery.

The next generation of food programs may very well combine the trend of mobile technology with social science. There is a need to incentivize local grocery stores as community health centers, even for large conglomerate supermarkets. Additionally, private label food brands want to be viewed as nutritional experts. One can image a text- and pictorial-based user interface by which consumers can make health decisions at the point of purchase. New pilot apps may one day geo-locate a farmer’s market truck and inform residents when it is scheduled to be in their neighborhood.

Community input helps to culturally sanction new stores in areas containing a predominant ethnic group. Technological profiles aggregate health filters specific to a family or neighborhood, and that translates to increased marketability. Consider what Uplift Solutions has done to encourage supermarket managers to embrace the rich ethnic heritage of their respective constituencies. It’s not impossible to envision a “virtual supermarket” largely distributed through religious and cultural vehicles, providing social markers to grocery stores seeking new ways to move product.

Then there are homebound consumers with disabilities, who are forced to live in a private food desert regardless of geography. Such users may one day enjoy an increased capacity to shop for groceries using “map apps” for the blind and click-to-call technology. Grocery retailers may reciprocate by offering pre-packaged meal bundles that are easy to deliver, prepare and consume. Already we see product billboards where users scan items for home delivery on their way home from work.

Where this ultimately points is a newly emerging constellation of digital and social tools, all created with the intention of removing existing barriers separating the farm from the fork. We should continue to strive for, and look forward to, new forms of cultural, nutritional and economic literacy. By cultivating evergreen business models around inclusive distribution, we might yet provide ambient health benefit to future generations and the private corporations who serve and employ them.

To learn more or find a food desert near you, visit the USDA food desert locator.