By Nina E. Banks
Like many people in the first two weeks of March, I rushed out to grocery stores to get enough food, supplies, and medicines to supply my household–two teenage sons, two dogs, and myself–for several weeks. My food selections were based on nutritional value and durability, and I was able to purchase what I needed to stock my pantry. Since we began staying at home, my continual concern has been what to prepare for each meal and if we will have enough satisfying and interesting food to last through the long stretch of self-isolation.
But when the governor in my state closed primary and secondary schools in mid-March, I also thought about the children who rely on the school system as their primary access to nutritious meals. Without bus service, how would those children get breakfast and lunch from the schools’ food distribution each day?
I thought about low-income mothers, grandmothers, and other caregivers who would now be responsible for feeding these children and other family members. How would they be able to get enough nutritious food to last through the many weeks of staying within their homes? As word about the pandemic began to spread, how would poor women afford large amounts of nutritious foods? Where would they have to go to find them?
Low-income, low-access (LILA) households in both urban and rural areas are often in communities referred to as “food deserts”—areas that lack access to foods that provide for a nutritionally adequate diet of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, and high-quality dairy. In the U.S., low-income and racially segregated neighborhoods are most likely to be food deserts. According to the USDA, 19 million people live in low-income communities with grocery stores located more than a mile away (or 10 miles for rural areas). Approximately 2.1 million households located far from a supermarket are also without a car. To better describe the systemic inequalities tied to food access, food justice advocate Karen Washington prefers the term “food apartheid” over “food desert.”
Urban neighborhoods have small “corner stores,” but they have limited food supplies and charge high food prices. Such stores are able to charge higher prices precisely because of the high demand for food, given the limited number of suppliers.
Fast food restaurants and convenience stores are prevalent in low-income and Black communities. However, food sold there tends to be heavily processed and heavy on fats and sodium—the kinds of foods that exacerbate diet-related health effects. Health risks include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and obesity. These are the conditions that put people in danger of the worst COVID-19 outcomes.
Well-stocked supermarkets tend to be in more affluent neighborhoods. How would low-income women get to such markets? By bus? Several buses? How would they manage to carry heavy bags of canned foods and rice—especially if they were elderly and/or had small children in tow? I have several well-stocked markets near my home and a car to transport the many heavy bags of groceries. Few of these options are available to people who live within food deserts or experience food apartheid.
Food inequities of race and class are also inequities of gender since the responsibility for making sure that families have food to eat is disproportionately the concern of women. Low-income women who are lone parents are especially vulnerable to the difficulties of accessing nutritious food. They have greater challenges in getting food not only because of high prices (women make less money than men) but also because women are less likely than men to own cars. For women without cars, particularly those with small children, reliance on public transportation – if available – to get to grocery stores often involves a great deal of time, hassle, and effort.
Across the U.S., there are environmental racial disparities in access to fresh, healthy foods. Black women have been active leaders in Food Justice as well as the overall Environmental Justice Movement, of which food justice is a part. The food justice movement gained momentum during the 1990s in urban communities in response to the growing awareness of the health effects of nutritionally inadequate diets on low-income communities of color. Both movements call attention to the effects of environmental racism on Black communities as a matter of social justice and public health and safety.
The inability of low-income people to have access to nutritious foods has always been at crisis level. With the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing governmental disregard for the welfare of these vulnerable communities, the health effects are likely to be catastrophic.
The Government must act to provide free food distribution centers in vulnerable communities, enabling people to get nutritious food while practicing social distancing. Local governments could also follow the lead of Baltimore City’s Health Department by operating a virtual supermarket that allows low-income people to order groceries online, pay with Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, and then pick the groceries up at local centers or have them delivered without paying a fee.
Nina E. Banks is an Associate Professor of Economics at Bucknell University.
This analysis is based on a working paper from Banks, Nina, Cecilia Conrad, and Rhonda Sharpe, Black Women in the U.S. Economy: The Hardest Working Woman, Routledge, Forthcoming.
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