If you’re poor, living in a food desert will cost you more.
Food deserts are neighborhoods that lack access to healthy, nutritious food. Typically the food at these markets are expensive and of lesser quality than what’s available in major grocery stores.
That was one of the primary observations drawn by students enrolled in International Nongovernmental Organization Studies 302: Social Entrepreneurship, a course that examines food justice in Providence. Guided by RIC Assistant Professor of Sociology Carse Ramos,12 students produced a “neighborhood ethnography” of a food desert in South Providence. Ethnography focuses on the observations of a culture’s social practices and interactions.
Nationally about 23.5 million people live in food deserts, with nearly half of the people living at or below the poverty line, according to 2018 research by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Food deserts involve a confluence of factors, ranging from a lack of transportation to the lack of corporate interest in establishing major grocery stores in low-income areas,” Ramos said. “For many people who primarily shop in these corner stores or bodegas, it’s about choices: For a dollar, are you going to buy an apple or four bags of chips? People are forced to pay a price for healthier options.”
For people living below the poverty line, that price can carry immediate and long-term implications on both finances and health. Although eating a steady diet of chips, candy and cookies and other processed goods is advantageous to a poor person’s wallet, consumption of such food generally leads to poor nutrition and obesity, which triggers ailments too expensive for the poor to pay for.
“There is a strong correlation between people living in food deserts not getting adequate nutrition and later being diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease and dealing with obesity,” Ramos said. “Direct health care costs can become very expensive, and poor people can’t afford such costs. Labor costs can rise too because sick people need to take time off work. And some people in precarious positions can’t actually afford to take time off work – in some cases, they can’t take off for fear of losing their jobs.”
The estimated health cost of obesity-related illnesses is $190 billion or nearly 21 percent of annual medical spending in the United States, according to a recent study by the Journal of Health Economics. Furthermore, the National Center for Biotechnology Information noted that $71 billion in health care costs due to chronic diseases could be saved through healthier eating.
Ramos is distinctly aware of the conditions of food deserts because she used to live in one of the nation’s biggest in New York City’s South Bronx, where many of the area’s residents are unemployed or underemployed and live in poverty. Living there inspired Ramos to focus her senior thesis at New York University on food deserts.
“I was not as impacted by living in a food desert as some of my neighbors were because I traveled to and from the city daily and would bring food back with me from Manhattan,” Ramos said. “But in my thesis I found that a lot of systems – including lack of fresh food options, lack of transportation and lack of accessibility for poor people to get to local food assistance offices – converged to make living in a food desert impossible.”
In a book titled “Food Justice,” by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (2010), Ramos said she came across an explanation for why corporate grocery chains aren’t keen on setting up shop in disadvantaged areas.
“The corporate thought isn’t about how people get fresh food,” she said. “It’s about not seeing areas where poor people live as stable enough to turn a profit. From a strictly profit-maximizing view, it makes sense.”
Ramos said community groups like the Southside Community Land Trust and Urban Greens – two consumer-owned cooperatives whose goal is to provide fresh, nutritious food so everyone regardless of income can eat and live well – are aiming to fill in the gap in food deserts.
“It’s encouraging to see the work of these small Providence-based initiatives like the Land Trust and Urban Greens,” Ramos said. “As a community, we should seek to support them with the good things they’re doing.”
As director of programs for the Partnership for Providence Parks (P3), Allison Barry ’18 is in the community making strides to address social inequities within food deserts. Barry, who is now pursuing her graduate degree in justice studies at RIC, was once enrolled in the Social Entrepreneurship course.
In her work with P3, Barry creates programming in Providence park and recreation spaces frequented by 97 percent of low-income youth who qualify for free and reduced lunches. One of P3’s most popular programs is a garden club, which introduces youth to healthier food options than what’s at their neighborhood bodegas, Barry said.
“Social justice is interconnected with food justice, and many of the kids we work with are aware of the food barriers within their neighborhoods,” she said. “It is important as a community that we provide them with the resources and tools to access healthy food options in Providence. It is easy for kids to access chips in the corner markets where they live, but we’re trying to empower them to learn how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables as a healthy alternative.”