Sobremesa: Fighting food deserts in the United States

The word “desert” usually evokes an image of a sandy, barren landscape. Yet food deserts blanket even the greenest of American landscapes today. 

After U.S. presidential elections, the first lady traditionally declares the causes they will be addressing during their time in the White House. During her husband’s presidency, Michelle Obama left an indelible mark on widespread issues, ranging from adolescent girls’ education worldwide to childhood obesity. While Michelle made strides in transforming the health of the nation’s youth through her “Let’s Move!” initiative, there are still many nutritional inequities in American society today.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes food as one of the foundational requirements of achieving the ultimate goal of self-actualization, meaning that “achieving one’s full potential” can only occur when properly nourished. On a campus where fresh fruit and warm sandwiches are just a click away, it can be hard to remember that there are areas of our developed nation where proper nutrition is hard to come by. Food deserts are areas where a significant portion of the population has limited access to healthy foods and lives far from supermarkets. Specifically, the term is applied to areas where at least a third of the population lives more than one mile away from a supermarket in urban areas and more than 10 miles away from a supermarket in rural areas. In food deserts, financial insecurity and a lack of vendors limit individuals’ access to healthy food. About 19 million people in America live in food deserts. Economic instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in the United States, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic families.

Tufts is currently combating food insecurity on its campus through programs like Swipe it Forward, which allows students to donate meal swipes to other students. In its efforts to serve sustainable food, Tufts Dining also donates its leftovers to a food emergency agency in the area, among other practices. Tufts also designed more niche efforts, including purchasing smaller bananas to reduce waste and using imperfect tomatoes in their marinara sauce. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that as our campus works to nourish the student body and reduce food waste, there are local neighborhoods like West Roxbury and East Boston that remain classified as food deserts. It is our duty as Tufts students to help our close neighbors achieve access to the nutrition they deserve.

One small way that we can start to chip away at this widespread issue is pressuring the government to make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pilot food delivery initiative, which is currently in 47 states, permanent and available nationwide. This would allow SNAP recipients to order food from stores like Amazon and Walmart, eliminating the barriers created by a lack of vendors, inaccessible transportation and insufficient funds. This program should also be amended to include a wider variety of foods and vendors.

By increasing accessibility to fresh, nutritious foods and creating awareness around the importance of a healthy diet, the United States can transform the health of future generations. Michelle Obama did a commendable job in beginning to tackle this problem; however, we must maintain the momentum she created in order to make healthy, nutritious food accessible to everyone.