When Food Insecurity and Food Proximity Become Barriers to Economic Success

By: Karen Wawrzaszek

It is a widely held view that the best schools are in the best neighborhoods, pricing out many from a better education experience.  We are learning that this is also the case with nutritious food.  In a country that occupies the top spot of Developed Countries, the lack of proximity to food can leave some communities feeling like they are a part of a different Country all together.  

Access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is a pervasive public health crisis nationwide. As of 2017, 12.5 percent of all U.S. citizens live in food insecure households, resulting from of a lack of economic resources and social capital.[i]Inadequate access to transportation, geographic proximity to fully-stocked grocery stores, and the inability to attain sustainable, long-term employment are all contributing factors. In DC, this number is even higher, with a food insecurity rate of 14.5 percent among all residents.[ii] 

The number of food insecure households has been slowly declining since the beginning of the recession, and while government programs like SNAP, WIC and the National School Lunch Program have made a slight impact, the goal of reducing food insecurity by half has remained a consistent priority for both Healthy People 2010 and 2020.[iii]This goal is unlikely to be met by the conclusion of the study next year.Chronic health issues linked to food insecurity are also on the rise, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.[iv]While I applaud leaders such as those in Prince William County for deciding to extend the free meals program in schools to dinner for students, the program alone won’t be enough to bridge the food insecurity gap. So what do we do next?

Taking a closer look at the social and economic determinants of health and their links to food insecurity is necessary. In DC, there is a distinct division between race and class that has contributed to prevalent health disparities among the city’s lowest-income wards. Wards 7 and 8, with poverty rates of over 75 percent, face significantly higher instances of unemployment and lower levels of formal education compared to the rest of the city.[v]Insufficient economic resources have a direct connection with the inability to access healthy food, resulting in poor health for many community members. Studies show that these wards have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in all of DC.[vi] 

The cycle of poverty can be pervasive in underserved communities, where academic achievement levels lag behind more affluent areas. Poverty-induced hunger is a disadvantage to low-income students, who are more likely to lack focus, be chronically absent, and face other challenges in meeting educational standards. This exacerbates the achievement gap through lower test scores and higher dropout rates, creating significant barriers to higher education – a common pathway to success for many of us. With the strong correlation between college degrees and higher income levels, those who are already at a disadvantage are more likely to remain in poverty in their adult lives. 

Programs like the National School Lunch Program are working to positively impact educational outcomes, but insufficient funding of the social safety net as a whole can allow for some individuals to fall through the cracks. A 2015 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress determined that students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch throughout DC have average math and reading scores nearly 40 points lower than ineligible students.[vii]Clearly, government support is just one piece of the puzzle.

In addition to the economic barriers to healthy food, proximity is another substantial disparity among low-income families. Wards 7 and 8, with only three full-service grocery stores for their combined 149,750 residents account for the vast majority of DC’s food insecure population.[viii]As a result, residents often have to travel long distances to access food, and many do not own vehicles. Cost of transportation and lengthy transit times can inhibit many from making grocery store trips. Often, it is more convenient to shop at corner stores, which typically do not sell fresh produce and may charge more for healthy food items.  I would argue food inequity is a regressive tax needlessly reducing disposable income for these families.

Existing biases of low-income communities hinder the repair of their broken food systems. The belief that the poor are not interested in healthy eating is connected to the larger framework that individuals are to blame for their own hunger and resulting health issues. In reality, the demand for nutritious food is generally high in food deserts, but these communities face insurmountable barriers to accessing it.[ix]Policymakers often use this narrative as a justification for neglecting to improve food access to under-resourced areas. Because of inadequate and often slow policy changes, health disparities continue to grow in food deserts, providing more evidence to support this belief in personal accountability. However, decades of policy choices informed by this narrow view of poverty and hunger are the foundation that food deserts have been built on.

It is evident that poverty and health are inextricably linked, so addressing food insecurity also means addressing economic disenfranchisement. The problem of food insecurity cannot simply be solved by building more grocery stores or increasing budgets for government assistance, when many communities continue to face institutional poverty and growing health disparities. In order to improve food equity, the structural and institutional barriers to economic opportunity need to be addressed. 

Dreaming Out Loud, a food and economic justice organization, is adamant that fixing the food system is not just about improving food access. They incorporate workforce development and entrepreneurship into their mission, to build an equitable, sustainable food system that addresses the fundamental causes of food insecurity. This organization operates the community farm at Kelly Miller Middle School as a means of improving healthy food access. Food grown at the farm is distributed through their community markets, which also serve as hubs for local food businesses to sell their products. The DREAM program, DOL’s food entrepreneurship development program, helps build the local economy by providing resources and training to start-up food businesses. They aim to develop and support community leaders through an intensive workforce development program for low-income residents. Policy change is also a significant priority, and the organization is actively involved in community and citywide initiatives to support food security. 

Building a resilient food system also means building resilient communities. Food insecurity and economic inequality will always be interconnected, so why do our policies and solutions to hunger continuously focus on only part of the issue? Dreaming Out Loud demonstrates through their work that providing support, training, advocacy, and resources to underserved (and even un-served) communities creates a foundation for an equitable food system. So how can we bridge the food insecurity gap? Through awareness that this problem is about more than just food, we can advocate for long-term policies and programs that address proximity, workforce, and education.

[i]Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2018). Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security in the United States in 2017. US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

[ii]Capital Area Food Bank. (2015). Capital Area Food Bank Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.capitalareafoodbank.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/General-Fact-Sheet-DC-MD-VA-1.22.15.pdf

[iii]Chilton, M., & Rose, D. (2009). A rights-based approach to food insecurity in the United States. American Journal of Public Health99(7), 1203-1211.

[iv]Bhupathiraju, S. N., & Hu, F. B. (2016). Epidemiology of obesity and diabetes and their cardiovascular complications. Circulation research118(11), 1723-1735.

[v]Smith, R. (2017). Food access in D.C is deeply connected to poverty and transportation. DC Policy Center. Retrieved from https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/food-access-dc-deeply-connected-poverty-transportation/

[vi]DC Department of Health (2017). District of Columbia Health Systems Plan. Retrieved from https://dchealth.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/doh/publication/attachments/DC%20Health%20Systems%20Plan%202017_0.pdf

[vii]Weedon, J., & Jacobson, J. (2017, October 11). How can we close our persistent education achievement gaps in DC? Retrieved from https://ggwash.org/view/65113/closing-our-persistent-education-achievement-gaps-in-dc

[viii]Report: Wards 7 And 8 Have Three Grocery Stores For 149,750 People. (2017, June 6). Retrieved from https://dcist.com/story/17/06/06/report-wards-7-and-8/

[ix]Food Insecurity and its Effects in Washington, D.C. (2018, November 12). Retrieved from https://www.roots-for-life.org/resources/2018/11/11/food-insecurity-and-its-effects-in-washington-dc

Abigail Skeans