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America's Struggle with Addressing the Public Health Issue of Food Deserts in Underserved Communities


Food deserts are an immense concern in many areas of the country. However, the government and people interested in helping these communities become healthier are working to alleviate the issues behind their plight.

What is a Food Desert?

The term food desert refers to an area that does not have food that is affordable, healthy and fresh in easy access, such as grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Instead, they are rural or urban neighborhoods that rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. This may seem like a third-world problem, but it is an epidemic happening in our own backyard.

Health problems such as obesity and diabetes are prevalent in these low-income areas because the most easily accessible and affordable food is often fast food or items containing high volumes of preservatives and artificial ingredients. With little to no access to fresh food and no education about how to maintain a healthy diet, poor habits are continuously passed down through generations.

What is Being Done?

Currently, there is government funding available for specific food deserts. New York City, which has seen success with implementing the Farmers Market Promotion Program, allows individuals to use their WIC and SNAP benefits at farmers markets throughout the city.

To qualify for funding, an area needs to be classified as low-income, meaning there is a 20 percent or higher poverty rate in the area or the median income of families in the area is at or below the surrounding city’s median family income. This means if a specific neighborhood has a lower median income than the city as a whole, it could qualify as a low-income area in need of assistance.

In addition, a food desert needs to qualify as a low-access community, which is determined by having at least 33 percent and/or at least 500 people on the census tract living over a mile from a large grocery store or supermarket. In the case of rural areas, the distance is changed to 10 miles.

Coupled with government programs, there are a number of nonprofit and charity organizations like the food bank, Philabundance, which has broken ground on a low-income grocery store in Chester, Pa. This will be the first grocery store in Chester since 2001. It will cater to families in need and is firmly rooted in the philosophy of servant leadership.

Projects like this would not be possible without forward thinking individuals who have sought an advanced degree in Public Health, believe in servant leadership and fully understand the importance of eliminating food deserts in this country.

Who is Getting Involved?

People of all income levels are becoming involved to help eradicate food deserts completely, but those who hold a Master of Public Health degree are at an advantage to help serve the community while they evaluate and control the severe effects that food deserts have on low-income areas.

These individuals understand how to design and implement strategies that help individuals and communities overcome their disadvantages to achieve a healthy lifestyle. You’ll also be better equipped to communicate your ideas and approach difficult situations ethically and professionally.

With your ability to problem solve and design innovative plans, you can help organizations find ways to incorporate more accessible grocery stores and farmers markets into the areas that need them most.

What Challenges do Food Deserts Present?

There are a number of challenges that these food deserts present to those who live in them and those who are working to eradicate them. First, the health issues faced by those living in food deserts can be debilitating. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are expensive and life-changing afflictions caused by the lack of nutritional food. It is difficult to get people to change their habits by simply presenting them with new options. An education system has to be implemented along with the new healthy lifestyle options so people can understand why and how it is important.

Take a proactive approach to ending food deserts and consider an online Master of Public Health at Concordia University, Nebraska and gain expertise in key public health concepts to support underserved communities and populations. Discover solutions with a specialization in Community Health Education or focus on high-level change with the Health Policy and Administration specialization.

Learn more about the Master of Public Health degree online at Concordia University, Nebraska. Request more information or call us at 877-497-5848 to speak to an admissions advisor.

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Cheryl Durheim, MHS Faculty
Master of Human Services