On my way to a party recently, I decided at the last minute to pick up a bottle of wine and some fruit to contribute to the festivities. I was already near my destination and began to drive around looking for a grocery store. After circling several blocks with no luck, I engaged my GPS, only to discover that there were no grocery stores for miles in any direction.
I was in a food desert!
Food Deserts and Food Swamps
And as it turns out, my hometown and state, Houston, Texas are full of them. Recently, I was introduced to the notion of food deserts and food swamps, and I realized instantly, the same people who are suffering the ill-effects of air pollution and poor access to health care, are also bearing the brunt of almost no access to quality, nutritious food. Some of my city’s policy-makers are aware of this and pushing to increase food access.
A food desert, according to Dr. Ann Barnes, Medical Director for Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention at Harris County Hospital District, is when one third of the residents in a census tract are over one mile from a full-service supermarket or grocery store.
Food swamps are communities in which there is an overabundance of high caloric, nutrient-poor foods versus healthy foods. In Texas, the uneven distribution of supermarkets statewide has resulted in large areas of residents that go without. Texas ranks lowest in the nation for supermarket density per population.
The shortage of supermarkets particularly impacts lower-income residents with limited resources for an adequate diet. In Houston, where 21% of the population lives below the poverty line, the poor that are disproportionately affected by the lack of supermarkets live mostly on the eastern parts of the city. It is no coincidence that these areas are the same parts of the city plagued with air pollution and unhealthy conditions.
Obesity, Asthma and Air Pollution
The Food Trust, a national research and advocacy organization, found that studies overwhelmingly indicate that people living in food deserts suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity and other diet-related issues. And, even though asthma is not considered a diet-related disease, high incidences of asthma appear in these communities as well. Poor diet contributes to and worsens asthma. There is a direct link between obesity and the incidence of asthma and asthma-related mortality. According to the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, the rise in obesity rates has paralleled the rise in asthma in recent decades. And conversely, significant weight loss has been associated with improvements in both asthma control and lung function. The higher one’s body mass index, the higher one’s risk of asthma.
Food deserts are almost always food swamps, meaning that where they are lacking in access to wholesome groceries choices, there is an abundance of unhealthy, fast-food opportunities. Sugar, processed carbohydrates (such as candy, juice, white bread, and chips), and trans fats commonly found in fast foods contribute to the inflammatory response characteristic of triggering asthma. Recently, the Journal of Asthma published a study of over 2,000 fifth-graders showing that the regular consumption of sweetened beverages greatly increased the children’s risk of developing asthma.
Dirty Air, Asthma and Social Justice
For the children of low-income families, food deserts, food swamps and air pollution conspire in their communities with a one-two-three punch that makes kids sicker, poorer-performing academically, and less physically active. Families under siege from a barrage of factors, when the air is dirty and when there is no access to healthy, wholesome food, cannot fight alone. Those of us concerned about the health of children and the welfare of our communities must band together to insist that policy-makers support strong clean air regulations for all.
Here are some of the ways to help: