Real Food Farm

It’s been a long time coming, but in many areas of the country, healthy food is getting easier to find. Stores from 7-Eleven to Walmart now carry organic products, helping to drive prices down and convenience up. But a deeper look at the nation’s food landscape reveals a stubborn inequity: According to the USDA, roughly 9 percent of U.S. households still have no access at all to fresh, healthy food. And for countless others, even if it’s on nearby shelves, it’s financially out of reach.

“It is still not uncommon for people in some areas to say to their neighbor: ‘What gas station do you get your groceries from?’” says Fred Haberman, cofounder of Urban Organics, which uses aquatic farming to bring certified-organic vegetables to underserved urban areas. Adds Josh Tetrick, founder of food technology company Hampton Creek: “We live in a time where the unhealthy choice is dirt cheap and convenient and the healthy choice is pricey and inconvenient.”

Decades-old problem

Experts trace the accessibility problem to the 1960s and ’70s, when white, middle-class families fled cities for suburbs, bringing supermarket chains and independent natural grocers along with them, says Allison Hagey, associate director at Oakland, California–based nonprofit PolicyLink. For people who stayed behind, few if any groceries remained within walking distance. Rural areas with faltering economies experienced similar depletion, and for many rural dwellers without cars, accessing healthy food became a significant chore. “We hear of people traveling an hour or two on multiple buses just to get groceries,” says Hagey, also a member of PolicyLink’s Food Access Team. Meanwhile, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and other sources of cheap, processed food opportunistically moved in.

Today, according to the USDA, nearly 24 million people live in so-called “food deserts” with no easy access to healthy food. A new PolicyLink report shows that low-income, urban neighborhoods with high minority populations have the least availability while—not surprisingly—white, college-educated, high-income neighborhoods have the greatest. One study of 22 Native American reservations in Washington state found that 15 had no grocery store at all.

Regardless of location, many people feel priced out of healthy offerings—and for good reason. One 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal found that it costs $1.50 more per adult per day (or $550 more per year) on average to eat healthy food, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, versus unhealthy food. Researchers noted that this is a “trivial” price to pay to avoid chronic diseases but acknowledged that, for disadvantaged populations, cost is a “key impediment” to eating healthy. “Lowering the price of healthy diet patterns should be a goal of public health policy,” the authors concluded.