Why food deserts persist in low-income NYC neighborhoods

Created Equal

NEW YORK — Hundreds of thousands of New York City residents live in so-called food deserts.

They’re low-income areas — usually Black and Hispanic neighborhoods — without large supermarkets and lacking many options for healthy, affordable food.  Areas long-considered food deserts include Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, Brooklyn, the South Bronx and parts of Harlem.  

People living there often turn to more expensive bodegas and small groceries. 

“There is a staunch unequality issue when it comes to access of food,” LaToya Meaders told PIX11 News. 

She knows all about food deserts. She grew up in one in Staten Island. 

“There isn’t like a fresh salad in these communities,” Meaders said. “Think about when you go into a corner bodega. Think about the options that are inside that store — potato chips, high fructose corn syrup drinks, and everything that is not good for the body.” 

Now, Meaders runs Collective Fare, a catering business in Brownsville that she expanded into a café and implemented food outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We focus on health and wellness cooking. We focus on providing access to people,” Meaders said.

That’s important because lack of access to healthy food can cause real health problems, according to Gina Lovasi, a Ph.D. and professor of Urban Health at Drexel University.

“Access to fresh foods in particular is related to obesity and to other risk factors,” Lovasi said. “Hypertension and diabetes, which we know have consequences for cardiovascular disease risk, for some cancers and even some transmissible diseases such as COVID-19.”

An estimate from the New York Times in 2009 put the number of New Yorkers living in food deserts at about 750,000. Many more were in areas that needed help with greater access to healthy food.  

So why aren’t there full-service supermarkets providing fresh produce and other nutritious items?

Supermarket analyst, author and podcaster Phil Lempert said it all boils down to money.

“The reason that they’re now called food deserts is they don’t have full-service supermarkets because they don’t make money there. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Lempert said major supermarkets face a slew of extra costs that hinder their ability to serve food deserts. Those costs include maintenance, security and crime.

There’s another problem with selling fresh produce in food deserts, according to Lempert.

“The problem when it comes to produce is that people who are in a food desert don’t eat produce,” he said.

Whether that’s because of tastes or conditioning from lack of access, Lempert said changing tastes isn’t easy.

But there are advocates who are trying to make changes in these areas.

Hostos Community College in the South Bronx started a food studies program and offers fresh food on campus.

The director of the college’s health and wellness center, Fabian Wander, told PIX11 he believes reliance on fast food has an impact on students.

“There are very limited options as far as healthy alternatives,” he added.

Other ideas for change include New York City supporting “green carts” selling produce; and there are community gardens. 

In New Jersey, the Legislature implemented funding for supermarkets and groceries in areas of need.

Lempert said that may be a necessary step in solving the problem.

“What we’re going to have to rely on are government programs that are going to help these supermarkets be able to stay in a food desert and make some money while they’re there,” he said.

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