The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to the forefront glaring racial disparities which advocates say have existed for decades. Included in the discussion is the issue of healthy food sources in lower income neighborhoods, so called “food deserts.”
The term “food desert” is not a new term to proponents of bringing healthier food choices to lower income neighborhoods in the City of Buffalo. A lack of healthy options in the city’s east side neighborhoods helps foster poor eating habits and high rates of certain chronic diseases, and the coronavirus pandemic is compounding an already difficult situation.
But are these food deserts inevitable in lower income neighborhoods? Advocates working to supply residents with healthier alternatives say there are forces keeping these options out of the neighborhoods.
Bianca Davis is a Research Assistant at the University at Buffalo’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab. She said the characterization of these neighborhoods as deserts is misleading.
“If we think of a desert, we identify a desert based on its inability to propagate foliage,” she said. “So if we think of healthy foods as foliage, and when we say food desert, that sort of indicates that a neighborhood is unable to provide healthy foods, and that is inaccurate.”
Looking at food deserts through a different lens, Davis said, creates a more apt term for the problem: food apartheid.
“There is a structural component that influences what a food environment has.” She said.
Components include government and tax policies which put grocery stores in one neighborhood and not another. In some instances it’s common to see two grocery stores only blocks away from each other.
The Buffalo Food Equity Network is a movement led by communities of color, providing economic benefit through what they say is the new food economy.
Network member Gail Wells said they are trying to combat the systemic issues which lead to health disparities in the neighborhoods they serve.
“To get people to pay more attention to their health and understand the value of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Particularly when you’re faced with a virus or some kind of health crises.”
Just over a year into their operations, Wells said the Buffalo Food Equity Network is slowly making inroads into east side neighborhoods.
“Each area has its own unique populations with their unique food choices, and that makes it a challenge,” she said. “But we’re up to the challenge.”