Deserts at our Doorstep

BY SAMMI PITZ

Food DesertAmong the fancy restaurants, elaborate college dining halls, and lavish high school cafeterias, St. Louis holds a total of eighteen food deserts—one of the highest such proportions in the United States. The USDA defines a food desert for an urban area as “not having access to a full-service grocery store within one mile.” Throughout the city, the areas most plagued with poverty coincide, perhaps not coincidentally, with these food deserts. In regions of low-income and low-accessibility, the majority of people come from a minority of the St. Louis population and from families of a single female breadwinner. Areas where people are most likely not to own cars tend to be those where transportation is most necessary to go to the supermarket. 14.2% of St. Louis residents do not have access to inexpensive, nutritious food, whether due to lack of financial means or lack of transportation. Since healthy, accessible, and affordable food stores space themselves far apart, most people in those neighborhoods resort to fast food restaurants or corner stores. These corner stores and fast food restaurants may provide food at low monetary cost, but detract from physical health thanks to the amount of poor, high-glycemic index carbohydrates (mostly composed of corn syrups), and chemicals consumed from the junk food. Morbid obesity and starvation rates are both much higher in food desert areas than in areas where food is plentiful and accessible. Reduction of obesity in low-income neighborhoods necessitates the introduction of local, healthy food options.

Food Deserts St. Louis

The Health Department of St. Louis has often expressed a desire to mitigate the problem of food deserts in any way possible. They have collaborated with local communities to open two full-service grocery stores in major food desert regions. For example, in November 2013, an Aldi grocery store opened near the corner of Delmar and Kingshighway. Then in December 2013 a Save-A-Lot opened on South Jefferson. Both stores reside along major bus routes to ensure easy accessibility for those who may not afford other types of transportation. Another way St. Louis tries to reduce the epidemic of food deserts and consequential obesity is an initiative from the University of Missouri Extension in St. Louis called the Healthy Corner Store Project. The Project aims to transform the products sold in low-income-area corner stores to include nutritious alternatives affordable to their average customers. Community members, for the first time for many, can easily buy fresh produce, meat, low-fat dairy, and healthy beverages without having to worry about extra money going towards the actual food or transportation. While many in the local community and the government try to fix the issue of food deserts, the small efforts can only fix so much. Eliminating much of the food desert landscape will not come quickly, rather gradually, fueled by persistent, incremental change within the communities.

To get involved:
Check out the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project
Learn about the St. Louis MetroMarket
OR Find a Food Desert Near You

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Sammi Pitz is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at sjpitz@wustl.edu

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