What are food deserts and why do they exist? Is it because the foods are deserting the neighborhoods?

That is exactly what is happening in Chicago, according to Dr. Terry Mason, chief operating officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health. He made the point at a session on health disparities in the food environment at the American Public Health Association conference in Chicago last week.

“You do not have disease in a local place, having it anywhere means you have it everywhere,” said Mason.

Many people who live in urban areas are more than 10 miles away from the nearest big chain grocery store.  Scientists and researchers who have been studying this issue discussed the problems and possible solutions with the diverse audience in the session.

Among their more fascinating studies discussed was one where residents of two Chicago suburbs were asked to identify 36 fruits and vegetables, but most of the African American participants could not identify most of the items in comparison to other racial groups. There was also a distinct difference within our community of people who could identify them based on education and income. Participants with less education and lower income did not identify as many of the items as others with more education and higher income.  The results of this study are being used to increase programs on food education in these communities.

Residents have recently started an urban farm, which has evolved into an addition of a farmers market that is employing members of the community, and the farmers market is selling the fruits and vegetables to local grocers to continue generating income.   Some of the women in the community have even started a healthy catering company that employs undocumented residents as well as victims of domestic violence, and they use the crops from the farm.

In retailing however, there is still a disconnect.

In another study on pricing of food and the perspective of consumers, researchers discussed a group consisting of African American women who reported that they understood what healthy foods were, but they were too expensive. If the healthier options were on sale or had coupons, it would make the community members more likely to purchase them.

But area storeowners said that they are too small to compete with the larger chain stores because they cannot afford large orders. However, they also admitted they did not realize how important it is to advertise healthy options on the front of the sales sheet instead of processed less nutritious food.

T. Elaine Prewitt, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences suggested one strategy.

“Make an economic incentive to lower the price of healthy food while increasing the price of unhealthy food as a disincentive,” she said.

The session had several other presentations including one on food as medicine, which emphasized plant-based dietary recommendations for improving health outcomes in African American communities. Another went further into issues of food environments and access on Chicago’s South Side.

Each of the presentations demonstrated that if you reach people where they are, they are willing to listen to information that will be beneficial to them and their families. The people of the food desert communities in the studies showed they are not satisfied with the status quo and were interested in learning about healthier options.