People of lesser means have few food buying choices where they live, while supermarkets seem to crop up where markets already thrive. Can we change that?

Fast food restaurants in a desert with supermarkets off in the distance

Photo illustration by News Decoder.

 This article, by high school student Aiden Huber, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Aiden is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

If you reside further than one mile away from a grocery store, you live in a food desert.

A food desert is an area lacking access to fresh and healthy foods and is often found in areas that are predominantly low income. They disproportionately affect people of color.

“If you live between 18th and 30th St. in Wilmington, there is no grocery store there,” said Jamilah Abdullah, a founder of Free Food For All, an organization in the U.S. state of Delaware that serves free food to underserved communities. “It isn’t that big of a deal if you have a car, but it is for walkers and bus riders.”

New food markets seem to spring up in areas where there is an influx of more affluent people. “It seems like new developments are being catered to those who are moving into the area, rather than those who actually live in the area,” Abdullah said.

Supermarkets pop up where they aren’t needed.

According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 6,500 food deserts across the U.S., yet the priority for new developments seems to be in areas where food markets already exist.

In Greenville, a wealthy neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware, the upscale grocery store and cafe Wegmans recently opened. If you drive five minutes in either direction, a Walmart and Janssen’s markets can also be found, causing some to question the necessity of this new addition.

The Wilmington nonprofit organization Planting to Feed, Inc. has been trying to provide better food choices in neighborhoods that lack food markets by installing community refrigerators. These are similar to what has become know as “little free libraries,” small installations that allow people to drop off and pick up food for free. Three are located in Wilmington.

“Whenever I check them, they’re empty.” Abdullah said, highlighting their popularity.

Not all food deserts are located inside cities.

No shortage of fast food establishments

Natalie Kincaid lives in Green Meadows in the small town of Smyrna, Delaware. Kincaid must pass more than five fast food establishments before reaching her nearest grocery store. “I would turn to fast food because that’s what would be closer,” Kincaid said. “Since it’s closer, I’ll go to Royal Farms or McDonald’s; like I had McDonald’s today. I can walk to the fast food restaurant and be there faster than I would be to the grocery store.”

Food deserts exist around the world. A 2021 study by Fidelia Dake from Open Research Africa found that in Windhoek, Namibia supermarkets were located in high-income areas, and budget stores, that normally lack fresh produce, were located in low-income areas. Further research in South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania has shown that these food deserts are emerging there as well.

Where people lack vehicles in towns where grocery stores are far and few, fast food and convenience stores are the only option.

Kincaid said distance affects what kind of food she purchases and how often she purchases food. She visits her local grocery story, but not often. “I don’t have a ride, like I don’t have the transportation that I need, so not frequently,” Kincaid said.

Kincaid’s neighborhood has no bus stops, and to get to the grocery store entails walking alongside, and crossing, a busy road.

“I would like to see the change of putting grocery stores closer to my neighborhood because it is more beneficial to the people who don’t have the transportation,” Kincaid said.

Abdullah said that to find solutions it is important to start conversations about food deserts.

“For example, digital artists can make signs and posters,” Abdullah said. “If you have a car, you can deliver a meal to someone or look up your local food pantry to give a helping hand. It’s always about engagement on that end.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why are new supermarkets built in places where grocery stores already exist?
  2. Why don’t grocery chains open markets in poor neighborhoods?
  3. What do you think can be done to convince grocery chains to move into less wealthy areas?

Aiden Huber is in the fourth year at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. Aiden runs an in-school mental health club called Lifting the Burden, is a member of the swim team, one of ten Senior Peer Leaders, and is a swimming instructor.

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Health and WellnessIn food deserts, residents thirst for healthy eats