cross posted at The Progressive Electorate
Eating healthy and focusing on nutrition can be difficult in urban American for one simple reason: access. I have long lamented that without better access to grocery stores in the downtown Birmingham area, we would fail in any redevelopment and urban renewal plans. However, I have learned that we have even more serious problems in terms of the health of those already in the city as related to lack of grocery stores as well as fresh fruits and produce options.
Today, the Birmingham News wrote a story about a study that found 88,000 in Birmingham ( a third of the population) live too far from healthy food. Nearly 25,000 of the residents are within three regions of “food deserts”. From the study by the Mari Gallagher group in conjunction with Main Street Birmingham
We define a Food Desert as a large, contiguous area with poor access to mainstream grocers. Food Imbalance generally means that it is a Food Desert area and that there is fringe (unhealthy) food nearby. By contrast, in a community with Food Balance, the nearest mainstream grocer is roughly the same distance as the nearest fringe food venue. We consider such an area to be in balance in terms of food access; it is just as easy or difficult to reach one or the other food establishment.
Here are some questions that can help you determine if you live in a food desert or food imbalance area?
From where you live, can you easily reach a grocery store that sells an assortment of high quality fresh produce?
• Is it easy to buy a first rate tomato, apple, or green bean, or do the stores near you mostly specialize in candy, soda, and chips?
• Can you buy skinless chicken as easily as fast food?
• Can you buy low fat and low salt products or only highly processed “food” high in salt, fat, and sugar that has little or no nutritional value?
• Do you want to eat healthy foods but find it difficult to do so because of where you live? The 88,000 people we are talking about would likely find it difficult to purchase healthy food on a regular basis.
So what can be done?
The study made several recommendations which I think are fabulous. We don’t get yet another gloom and doom study without any solutions offered. Some of these such as supporting farmer markets and community markets and promoting healthier eating can be implemented with little cost and immediately. Several of these like recruiting grocers, revamping current access and grocery shuttle vans are long term
projects that should be carefully planned.
I would also like to use this information to make another appeal for the Alabama Legislature to pass a law removing the sales tax on Groceries. Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that fail to offset, rebate or offer any break on sales tax on food and groceries. This should certainly help in an effort to promote more healthy food options. Food Deserts are an issue across America evidenced by a USDA study in 2009.
Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2 percent of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.
Unfortunately much more than 2.2 percent of Birmingham area residents live more than a mile from a supermarket. Birmingham is also burdened by a lack of quality public transportation which further compounds upon this issue. As the USDA study points out , we certainly subsidize junk food so we can certainly make a better effort to subsidize such efforts as farmer markets, tax subsidies for grocers to open and relocate within food deserts, shuttle vans and community gardens. I know that this is something that has plagued a number of areas in this state and while many assume it to be a rural problem, the problems in urban areas are just as drastic.