Experts believe fixing food deserts is not enough

CHICAGO-September 27, 2016

Chicago based ecologist Nance Klehm believes that eliminating food deserts alone will not close the nutrition gap.

“I don’t like the term food desert,” said Klehm. “I don’t believe in using crisis language in social ecological discussions. Blanket terms don’t get to the root of the problem.”

The problem we are discussing are the complexities of access to healthy food and poor nutritional diets. The term “food desert,” defined by the USDA as any area with “limited access to grocery stores and other sources of healthy food,” paints a biased picture of rising obesity rates and public health problems in the United States that Klehm and other experts do not agree with.

“Access to healthy food is important in impoverished areas,” said Klehm. “But access to healthy food is not the only problem.”

In 2010 Michelle Obama started The Healthy Food Financing Initiative to combat food deserts. The program is aimed at low-income city neighborhoods, and according to PolicyLink it has distributed more than $500 million to increase access to fresh food. As part of Michelle Obama’s plan a group of major supermarkets pledged to open or expand 1,500 grocery or convenient stores in neighborhoods that had none by 2016.

Klehm is correct in her assessment that just building grocery stores in lower income areas will not help solve the nutrition gap fully. In 2015 AP News investigated the group of supermarkets that pledged into Michelle Obama’s healthy food plan. They found that many retailers were falling short and struggling to make margins in poorer neighborhoods.

Research in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health shows that through the program there has been increased awareness of food access but it has not altered dietary habits or obesity levels. The Journal of the American Medical Association did a study using fifteen years’ worth of data for more than 5,000 people in five cities and found no connection between access to grocery stores and healthier diets.

Produce department at Associated Supermarket in Morrisania, New York. (Photo: Flickr)

The solution to food insecurity, according to Klehm, lies in the ground.

“Healthy soil is essential to to growing healthy food. Without healthy soil the food grown will have no nutritional content,” said Klehm. Her soil expertise has helped her see that those in low-income areas like Austin and North Lawndale do eat well when they know how and what to cook at home.

Klehm emphasizes the importance of understanding how to cook and balance nutrition throughout the day, while learning to eat simply and well for a low cost.

“Nutrition knowledge, which is strongly related to education level, is likely to play a role in adoption of healthful dietary habits,” a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association said. In addition to access to healthy food, the inclusion of nutrition classes in low-income areas, growing and cooking one’s food properly in healthy soil, and budgeting for low-cost healthy food is a step in the right direction of closing the nutrition gap.

Cover photo courtesy of Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Charlene Haparimwi is a freelance writer for Hello Giggles, The Huffington Post, Hooligan Mag and Femsplain. You can find more of her work at and on her Twitter.