May 23, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus leaves those in food deserts even more vulnerable

Data: USDA; Cartogram: Sara Wise/Axios
Data: USDA; Cartogram: Sara Wise/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many people to buy groceries and supplies in bulk, but nearly 23.5 million Americans who live far from supermarkets don’t have that option.

Why it matters: Low-income households in food deserts — more than a mile from a supermarket in a city or suburbs or more than 10 miles in rural areas — often struggle with having enough to eat, and the global pandemic has exacerbated that circumstance. Their access to fresh produce and meat continues to decrease, and they often turn instead to fast food or processed foods, according to the Agriculture Department.

  • More than 2.3 million Americans live more than a mile away from a grocery store.
“With the virus and the kinds of social distancing regulations that we’ve put into place and issues with businesses shutting down and not continuing to be sources for employment for people, this can only make the situation worse in food deserts, particularly for vulnerable populations. We have to be very concerned about their welfare with regard to food access.”
— Lauri Andress, assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, to The News and Sentinel.

The state of play: Black and Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be without supermarkets and instead rely on fast food and smaller grocery stores than predominantly white neighborhoods, according to a 2012 report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

  • Two small grocers serve the 75,000 people living in Ward 7, a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C., ABC reports. Nearly 90% of the population there is African American, according to DC Health Matters.
  • Rich Timberlake owns the only grocery store in his town in Northampton County, N.C. He told the Wall Street Journal that if one of his employees contracts the coronavirus then he would have to close his store, leaving hundreds of people without easy access to food.

Yes, but: Communities and governments across the nation are stepping up to deliver fresh produce and goods to people living far from supermarkets.

  • Growing Home, an urban farm in the South Side of Chicago, is delivering fresh groceries and offering pickup options that some neighborhoods wouldn’t normally have, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Local government officials can ask the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service for food boxes to distribute to those in need. More than three dozen states, territories and tribal nations have had their requests approved, per the Journal.

Of note: African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics are already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and are more at risk of complications and death due to chronic health conditions.

  • Diabetes and heart disease are made worse from living in food deserts with few healthy and affordable meal options, The Daily Herald reports.

Go deeper: Coronavirus breaks the food supply chain

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