Most of us strive to eat a healthy diet, rich in plant-based foods. Studies show that healthy eating is tied to our overall wellness and disease prevention, including reduced risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. One study from the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital even linked the consumption of a plant-heavy diet to lessening the severity of COVID-19 if contracted. (The research was conducted in 2020 before vaccines were widely available.)
But eating healthily may not be as easy as simply deciding to do so. Access to healthy foods is not the same for everyone. In the United States, the 2020 national average for rates of food insecurity sat at 10.5 percent. (Food insecurity represents household economic and social limitations or access to food) According to The Grocery Gap report published by The Food Trust, low-income neighborhoods have 30 percent more convenience stores than middle-income neighborhoods. These convenience stores are likely to be stocked with unhealthy and non-perishable foods such as chips and other processed foods, but fewer produce options or healthy foods. Those with disabilities, lack of access to transportation or childcare may have additional access hurdles to stocking their fridges with nutritious foods.
The reasons why there are disparities in access to healthy food are myriad. And it isn’t only about the price of the fruits and vegetables. Understanding why healthy food is not available to all is the first step in improving access.
Neighborhoods without groceries
Food deserts are defined as places where low-income individuals or families live more than half a mile from a food retailer in an urban environment, and more than 10 miles from one in a rural setting. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, a whopping 32 percent of the population falls into this category. In the United States overall, 17 percent of people live in food deserts.
In addition, some people live in food mirages, which are communities where healthy food is readily available, but low-income households are unable to afford it.
Some activists and researchers use the term food apartheid, rather than the term food desert. Food desert doesn’t speak to the intentionality of policies that create limited access to food, says Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
Food apartheid better describes the systemic racism that has led to a landscape where affluent communities have multiple food choices (often with a higher density of establishments selling fast food and junk food, relative to produce-abundant supermarkets or grocery stores, a.k.a. food swamps), while lower-income communities have limited choices overall. The Grocery Gap report found 89 different studies documenting uneven access to supermarkets in urban areas based on income, race, or both. Not only were stores in low-income communities of color less likely to have healthy foods, but, in addition, the foods were likely to be more expensive than in food swamps.
Subsidizing the wrong foods
With the introduction of the 1973 US Farm Bill, production of certain crops became subsidized by the United States government. These agricultural crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice, are often used to make items such as high-fructose corn syrup and oils used in unhealthy processed foods. A 2016 article published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal found that people who ate more of these subsidized foods had a higher probability of cardiometabolic risk. Because subsidies keep the prices of these foods lower, they can be more accessible to those with less discretionary income than foods that fight disease.
Assistance for the better
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, allows low-income families to buy nutritious foods at certain stores. The kind of outlets where SNAP is accepted is expanding, including some co-ops, farmers’ markets, and non-traditional grocery outlets, which may increase access.
Read the fine print
In certain states, SNAP funds may be used at Instacart and other grocery delivery services. While there are purchase minimums (around $35), this may be a thoughtful way to get healthy foods delivered to food deserts and to households without cars.
Food apartheid, food insecurity, and concern about access to healthy foods are not new issues. Some of the programs designed to help those in need haven’t necessarily made access easier, although progress is being made.
Follow these tips to get more plant-based foods in your diet.
Reduce food waste. The USDA estimates 30-40 percent of all good food is thrown away! When you find a fresh produce bargain, make sauces or soups, or freeze the extras to extend the life of your bounty.
Your freezer is your friend. Frozen vegetables can be cheap and available and aren’t as salty as canned varieties. Stock up on frozen vegetables without any additives from the freezer case.
Choose organics. When money is at a premium, buy conventional fruits with peels (like bananas and oranges), and save organic purchases only for foods that are more likely to have pesticide residue, such as spinach, grapes, and apples.
Grow your own. Tomatoes and strawberries grow well in pots, so even apartment-dwellers can give it a go. Look for a community garden in your neighborhood if you want more space.
Find the free fridge. Cities from Portland to Nashville offer community-run free refrigerators. These mutual-aid outposts allow neighbors to drop off fresh foods so that those in need to stop by and take what they need.
Fast food facts
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36.3 percent of US kids eat fast food in a given day. It’s readily available and is served quickly for when you’re in a hurry. Plus, it seems cheap. But when you do the math, you can eat healthier options at fast-food prices.
Conventionally Grown Produce
$1.39 small fries at McDonald’s
$1.40 per red grapefruit
$0.99 small Frosty at Wendy’s
$1.48 per lb. yellow crookneck squash
$1.79 small soda at Burger King
$1.60 per 2 lb. bag of carrots
$3.69 small Blizzard at Dairy Queen
$4.99 per lb. of Brussels sprouts
The fab five
If you’re short on cash, add these nutritious foods to your shopping list. Their combination of affordability and nutrition make them wise buys.
What it Does
Fights cancer, delivers vitamin C, vitamin K1, and Vitamin A
Provides antioxidants to improve memory
Keeps you satiated thanks to lots of fiber
Offers a plant-based protein punch
Contains amino acids to make and heal tissue