“Food deserts”: when healthy food is not for everyone

Are we sure that we all have the same access to healthy food, even in the most developed countries? Unfortunately, this is not the case, as the phenomenon of ‘food deserts’ shows.

The term “Food desert” refers to geographical areas where access to healthy and affordable food, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein-rich foods such as meat and fish, is limited or even non-existent. The reason? Supermarkets are too far away, or the population in these marginal areas of the planet is indigent.

According to the 2017 report, the most recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 54.4 million people, or 17.7% of the U.S. population, live in these areas. They are called “food deserts” because they have a poverty rate more than or equal to 20%, an income lower or equal to 80% of the national average income, and the nearest supermarket more than half a mile away for the urban areas or more than 10 miles for the rural areas.

#FoodDeserts are those geographical areas where access to #healthy and reasonably priced #foods, such as fresh fruits, veggies and #foods rich in #proteins such as #meat and #fish, is very limited. Click To Tweet

But the problem is even more severe than we think, considering that the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) places small corner grocery stores (which often sell packaged food) in the same category as supermarkets like Safeway and Whole Foods.

The Covid19 pandemic has made it harder for everyone to buy food and other essential goods, worsening the situation in these already problematic areas. Due to the economic crisis, the number of regions at risk of becoming food deserts can dramatically increase, due to the high level of unemployment, the further fall in income, the lack of public transport, especially in rural areas, and a low number of food retailers providing fresh products at affordable prices.

Not to mention the serious adverse health effects that it entails: people living in a food desert have, in fact, exposure of 2.5 times higher to hyper-processed unhealthy food, rich in carbohydrates, salt, and fats, resulting in a higher incidence of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. To give an example, in Chicago, the death rate from diabetes in a food desert is twice that of areas with regular access to supermarkets.

Those living in a #FoodDesert have a 2.5 times higher exposure to #UnhealthyFood, such as hyper-processed food rich in #carbohydrates, #salt and #fats, and a higher incidence of #hypertension, #obesity, #diabetes and… Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, hyper-processed foods are also becoming more widespread in Europe, which is why we need a valuable tool to recognise and avoid them. In this regard, the Nutriscore label does not help in the right choice of healthy food: in fact, a tray of PDO raw ham is labeled with red light, while green is given to a pack of chocolate breakfast cereals or a jar of cooked ready to eat carbonara pasta, thus giving the green light to hyper-processed foods and unfairly penalising genuine typical Mediterranean “Made in Italy” products.

There is still much to be done, and it is the task of decision-makers to identify areas at risk of becoming food deserts, improving access to food to ensure a healthy diet. According to the most up-to-date American dietary guidelines 2015-2020, a healthy diet should include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, meat and fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds, reducing at the same time calories and limiting the intake of trans fats, sugars, and sodium. But it is also necessary to provide tools to help the consumer in his choices towards a healthy and balanced diet, hoping that healthy food will not increasingly become a utopia or a privilege for few people.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.