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A food desert is an area in which the level of availability of nutritious food is low (Li et al. 2014). The concept is based on the recognition that, despite having access to large amounts of diverse food, people living in a particular area may not have access to products that constitute a healthy diet; people who live in such an area have to make extra efforts to obtain products with sufficient levels of vitamin content and nutritious content.
The issue is particularly daunting in urban areas; a common situation is the abundance of processed food and the difficulty to find fresh products. The low level of access can be due to various reasons, including logistics (particular products are not delivered to stores so that they can be easily bought) and affordability (fresh products are significantly more expensive than processed ones; also, underprivileged and vulnerable groups or communities may have insufficient income that does not allow them buying such products regularly).
It is acknowledged that the lack of nutritious products in one’s diet causes remarkable adverse health effects (Slavin and Lloyd 2012). Higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lowers risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Moreover, consuming processed food instead of fresh food decreases the level of an organism’s protection because necessary antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents fail to be delivered to the body.
Therefore, living in a food desert presents considerable health risks. New York City has such areas; according to Li et al. (2014), many measures have been taken by public administrators to make fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible in those parts of the city that report the lowest fruits and vegetable consumption rates and the highest obesity rates. Logistics remains a major concern, which is why those measures were primarily focused on providing additional services so that people could buy nutritious food without having to travel long distances.
It is recognized that food deserts are largely an urban, societal, and lifestyle-related problem (Burton et al. 2013); however, there is also a connection to climate change. The connection consists of the effects of climate change on agriculture; potential difficulties and challenges associated with growing fresh products and caused by changing climate can contribute to the problem of food deserts, i.e. make fresh products even less accessible in those areas that are currently food deserts.
The effects of climate change on agriculture, however, are not sufficiently studied (Climate Education for K-12 2010). On the one hand, the higher level of carbon dioxide, which is a major cause of climate change, can be expected to increase the vegetative growth of plants, including crops; also, such effects of climate change as the increased average temperature can be expected to facilitate growth, too.
However, it should not be overlooked that the change of natural conditions described above will affect not only cultivated plants but also weeds and pests; in better conditions, they will become more prolific and widespread. It means that the costs of growing plants will increase. Also, climate change modifies the rain events pattern in a given area, which can lead to longer dry periods and negatively affect the harvest.
The deteriorating condition of water and its decreasing availability for various purposes, including irrigation, are among the adverse effects of climate change, too, and they can aggravate the process of food desertification. Finally, the factor of pollution should be considered. The quality of food is a crucial element in addressing the issue of food deserts; pollution associated with unsustainable development and climate change can decrease the quality of available food and turn more areas into food deserts.
Environmental justice can be defined as the equal and just distribution of environmental burdens among all the people, groups, and communities in a given society. It means that everyone, regardless of race, gender, income level, or educational level, should be involved in the processes of addressing environmental issues, such as enforcing environment-related regulations or promoting more sustainable behaviors.
The need for the concept is based on the recognition that different parts of societies suffer more from the effects of climate change and other environmental issues than other parts, i.e. there are vulnerable groups for which the negative impact is more extensive. Food deserts are an example of such injustice. For instance, Hilmers et al. (2012) found that “[l]ow-income neighborhoods offered greater access to food sources that promote unhealthy eating.” These findings show that the emergence of food deserts, their continuation, and the deterioration of access to nutritious food in them is linked to the average level of income in a given area.
The perspective of environmental justice suggests that this inequality should be addressed by considering societal factors. In low-income communities, people may not be able to afford fresh products regularly, and they often do not have enough free time to travel long distances for their grocery shopping every day. In New York City, there are low-income areas that do not have fresh product outlets within walking distances of people’s homes.
The environmental justice principles, including the principle of equality, suggest that healthy food choices should be facilitated for all groups of society. For this, extensive cooperation is needed, and the first thing to consider is that many people live in food deserts without being aware of that. Nutrition education is the first step toward the fair distribution of environmental burdens associated with access to healthy food.
The primary remedy mentioned above—nutrition education—should consist of awareness campaigns among the residents of New York City that will encompass the benefits of healthy eating and the negative effects of consuming more processed food and fewer fruits and vegetables. It can be expected that more people will be willing to reconsider their diets; however, the conditions for that should be created because those people will still be living in food deserts. An important thing is public policy: it should be recognized on the legislative level that all the people in the city should have sufficient access to nutritious food within walking distances of their homes.
Further, the logistics should be planned and properly implemented. In this context, it is not necessary to build additional outlets; this initiative can face the issues of space shortage, low demand, and inadequate competition. However, alternative solutions can be proposed. Li et al. (2014) described the project in which mobile food carts were introduced in the streets. They are known as Green Carts and offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. This flexible solution can be applied to addressing the food deserts issue in other places, too.
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Burton P, Lyons K, Richards C, Amati M, Rose N, Des Fours L, et al. 2013. Urban Food Security, Urban Resilience and Climate Change. Gold Coast:National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.
Climate Education for K-12. 2010. Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture. Web.
Hilmers A, Hilmers DC, Dave J. 2012. Neighborhood disparities in access to healthy foods and their effects on environmental justice. American Journal of Public Health 102:1644-1654.
Li KY, Cromley EK, Fox AM, Horowitz CR. 2014. Evaluation of the placement of mobile fruit and vegetable vendors to alleviate food deserts in New York City. Preventing Chronic Disease 11:1-9.
Slavin JL, Lloyd B. 2012. Health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal 3:506-516.