Law360 (August 23, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT) --
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent study says 39.4 million Americans live in low-access communities, or communities in which at least a third of the population live in a food desert. Families living in food deserts are 2.28 times more likely to have to travel further distances to supermarkets than middle-income families. That becomes a problem when families don't have access to a car and are dependent on unreliable public transportation.
Further, Black people are 2.49 times and Latinx people are 1.38 times more likely than white people to live in neighborhoods without access to a full-service grocery store. And while it is no secret that nutrition has a direct effect on a person's physical and mental health, these statistics show that a nutritious diet and good health are out of reach for many.
Americans who have been banished to food deserts have struggled with access to healthy food for years, and COVID-19 has only made it worse. But before we can attempt to understand the coronavirus's impact on these communities, we must first understand how food deserts came to fruition.
Food deserts are a product of federal and state policies that have contributed to residential and racial segregation.
In the 1940s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the Federal Housing Administration as part of the New Deal, low-interest home loans were offered to middle-class white families, which allowed them to buy houses in the suburbs and move out of the cities. Once white families started migrating from cities all over the U.S., supermarkets followed and set up shop in the suburbs, leaving many of the cities and their remaining residents without places to shop for fresh food.
Families of color were not afforded the same access to low-interest home loans as white families because of discrimination, restrictive housing convents and redlining. As time went on, supermarkets continued to leave inner cities in swarms and open in what had become more affluent suburban towns.
A 2009 USDA report noted, "The lack of supermarkets within low-income inner-city minority communities is not a demographic accident or a consequence of 'natural' settlement patterns." Systemic disinvestment was a way to keep white communities segregated from people of color.
Consequently, the communities of color were stripped from every resource they had and needed in order to cater to the needs of the white communities, leaving them in disarray. To this day, people in low-income communities generally have to travel great distances to find a grocery store and end up paying higher prices for everything.
Hardship compounded with an unprecedented global pandemic can only equal more hardship. Earlier this year, just as nationwide stay-at-home orders were rolling out, Lauri Andress, assistant professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health, said, "The individual-level guidance we typically provide on how to eat healthily will collide with the pandemic regulations that have been enacted, leading to a conflict with the structural and systemic issues we know to exist for low-income individuals living in food deserts." And she was absolutely right.
As we were all ordered to stay home, many began to stock up, clearing the shelves of Costco, Walmart, Target, Publix, and the like. Grocery shopping for those who already struggled to make it to a supermarket became impossible. Even as an upper-middle-class attorney, with a mode of transportation and living within minutes of grocery stores and within grocery delivery limits, I found it extremely difficult to procure basic household items and fresh food. I can only imagine the panic and strain for those less privileged.
The state and federal governments put their heads together, in a way we as a country had never seen before, in support of emergency relief for individual Americans that were struggling amid the lockdowns. And although some people received minor economic relief that may or may not have hit their bank account quickly, it did not change the fact that for millions, food was even further away than before the pandemic hit.
Over the years, the federal government has made efforts to encourage grocery stores to open up shop in low-income communities by offering tax breaks and incentives. In 2010, then-first lady Michelle Obama launched her campaign Just Move! and pronounced, "The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake."
Obama made it her mission to battle childhood obesity by attempting to eradicate food deserts and make nutritious food accessible to all Americans, regardless of their geography. In 2011, as part of the Let's Move! campaign, Walmart Inc. pledged to open 300 stores by 2016 in urban neighborhoods, but by 2012, it had only opened 23 new stores. Not only did the company's store openings slow, but many of the stores closed not long after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Although a valiant effort was made by the former first lady, there were other, more deeply rooted forces working against the initiative. Namely capitalism. The fact of the matter is, companies go where the money is; and companies believe there's less money to be made in low-income communities.
On March 13, 2019, the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, a bipartisan bill, was reintroduced as a possible solution to food deserts by offering incentives to food service providers such as grocers, retailers and nonprofits that expand access to nutritious foods in underserved communities. On Aug. 9, 2019, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations by the U.S. House of Representatives and it remains there today.
Although that bill has seemed to stall in the House, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act became law this year. The CARES Act provided a one-time payment of $1,200 to those who earned less than $75,000 per year before taxes, known as the stimulus check, as well as appropriations to the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including funds for the Child Nutrition Programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
The act also afforded an additional $600 per week to those who collect unemployment in their state. Although these funds have helped many, it has hardly been enough in addressing the root of the issue in food deserts — access to nutritious food.
Less than a month after the CARES Act was signed, sealed and delivered, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The HEROES Act aims to provide additional emergency assistance as the fiscal year comes to a close on Sept. 30. It passed the House on May 15 and is currently being argued in the Senate. The act will provide the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with an additional $10 billion that will remain available through Sept. 30, 2021, to "prevent, prepare, and respond to the coronavirus," and an additional $3 billion to the Child Nutrition Program, among others.
The additional funding is paramount in a time of crisis; however it's not enough, as these communities are being kicked while they're down. And although I certainly don't have the magic solution for curing food inequality and poverty, it's clear that we need to reach beyond the "if we build it, they will come" philosophy that we've been clinging to. Because in many ways, food deserts already exist in a poverty epidemic, with little to no help from the structural barriers that created them.
The question then becomes: What are we really doing to help Americans living in food deserts? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, recommend that we recognize food inequality as a human rights issue. By doing so, the responsibility for solving the problem is then shifted away from private companies like Walmart and placed on the shoulders of government.
When government becomes responsible, there is more accountability for funding and connecting food, housing, school, employment, transportation and health care to communities in need. This seems particularly apropos seeing as government policies are what created food deserts in the first place.
So what can we do as attorneys and citizens? A good starting point is to vote for candidates running for office that understand the impact of inequality and to lobby for and support policies that challenge government to provide the appropriate resources to underserved communities. Food inequality is a form of structural racialization that can only be changed through tearing down policies that perpetuate segregation and challenging racism every single day.
Jessica A. Giesen is an attorney at Kelley Kronenberg and a former assistant public defender in Miami-Dade County, Florida.
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