Food Deserts Are Real

Fighting hunger is not simply an issue of providing people with enough calories. Families living in poverty in New York City, especially Latinos, face hardships when it comes to affording the nutritious food they need to consume for a balanced diet. Every person has a right to healthy food. We owe it to our fellow New Yorkers and Latinos to explore all of the issues that cause food insecurity, poor nutrition, and health disparities, and make sure that nutritious food is affordable for everyone.

Between 2009 and 2011, one in six New Yorkers, including one in four children growing up in the city, was food insecure. Even for those who have dinner on the table each night, access to healthy food can be challenging. Approximately 750,000 New Yorkers live in food deserts In addition, there are 3 million New Yorkers living in areas with limited access to healthy food options.

The lack of availability of healthy food has received extensive attention in recent years, both locally and nationally. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative aims to eliminate food deserts nationwide by 2017. In 2008, New York City established the Green Cart program, which created 1000 permits for carts selling fresh fruit and vegetables in the five boroughs, targeting low income neighborhoods with limited access to supermarkets. The Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program in New York State offers vouchers for the purchase of locally grown produce; 300,000 families have benefitted from the program so far.

Some programs provide nutrition education as well. The SNAP program (also known as food stamps) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program both include educational components that provide families with healthy recipes and cooking tips. Here at The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, we offer a culturally appropriate healthy living program that teaches parents and children how to cook more nutritious alternatives to traditional meals, reduce portions, incorporate more water consumption, and integrate exercise and physical activities into the daily lifestyle.

Despite the attention that the issue has garnered, the idea that “food deserts” are a concern for our families is criticized. Opinion pieces by political commentators like John McWhorter articulate that poor nutrition, obesity, and disease in low income minority communities is not connected with food availability, rather that the real issue is cultural preferences and attitudes towards food that cause low income minority families to “choose” unhealthy foods even when supermarkets are readily available.

Dismissing the concept of food deserts and viewing poor nutrition as a cultural “problem” not only blames the victim for health disparities, but overlooks the other factors that come into play. It’s no accident that healthy foods are inaccessible in low income, minority neighborhoods. Availability means more than just the existence of large grocery stores; it also implies affordability and cultural accessibility. Critics who claim that food deserts and poor nutrition are imaginary issues are blind to the challenges that low income and minority families face on a daily basis.

However, critics are right that the issue of food access does not exist in a vacuum. The extent of the issue may be underrepresented by the current definition of food deserts. The definition does not take into account the availability or affordability of fresh foods. In addition, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) places corner stores and delis in the same category as larger supermarkets, indicating that government reports may present an inaccurate view of where healthy food is really accessible.

To address the issue, we need a multi-faceted approach. First, we have to get more healthy food options into low income areas, and inform families to take advantage of these options. Many advocacy groups, in focusing on food availability, have proposed tax incentives for grocery stores and supermarkets opening in food deserts and low income neighborhoods, a per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, and limits on what types of stores and advertising can be placed in school zones.

We also must maintain federal and state benefit programs that support millions of low income families, and make these resources more accessible for Latinos. Across-the-board cuts to the SNAP budget starting in November of 2013 will total over $5 billion during the 2014 fiscal year. For a family of four, that will be like losing 21 meals each month. These cuts will be devastating for the millions of families who rely on these benefits every year.

Furthermore, the Latino population in particularly is in crisis: as of 2011, only 39% of eligible Latino families received SNAP benefits. Many families are unaware of the benefits that are available, find the application process daunting, or are shut out due to their immigration status (legal immigrants must reside in the country for 5 years before becoming eligible for SNAP, and undocumented immigrants are not eligible.) In addition to working to stop the budget cuts, we need to ensure that Latino families have equal access to programs such as SNAP and WIC.

Finally, policy efforts must be complemented by culturally competent nutrition education programs. Programs that utilize Promotores de Salud (health promoters or peer educators) provide community based programs that teach parents and families about healthy cooking and portion sizes. These programs have made significant strides towards equipping Latino families with the resources to choose healthy recipes and products.

Fundamentally, hunger is a human rights issue. Food insecurity and poor nutrition are inextricably linked to poverty and to lack of education, and any plan to address the issue would need to target these issues alongside the issue of availability. Once we accept that everyone has a right to healthy, nutritious food, we must pursue every means available to make sure that all Latinos – and all people – have access to the healthy food they need.

Elba Montalvo is the Founder of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families.

Investing in America’s Future

It is projected that in 2050 the number of Hispanic children will equal non-Hispanic white children—36% each, according to a new study “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013.” In addition, the report states that the total number of the children’s population decreased significantly from 36% in 1964 to 24% in 2012 and projected to be 21% in 2050. Even though the total children’s population is decreasing, the Latino children’s population will be equal majority in the future.

Young Latinos represent the fastest growing market—the future of our country’s workforce and its ongoing leadership in the global marketplace. The National Latino Children’s Institute (NLCI) strongly believes that America cannot continue to grow and prosper without increasing the educational attainment and economic status of this population. Employers know that the foundation for success is an educated, innovative workforce.

NLCI believes that young Latinos are an integral part of this nation’s past, present and future. For 16 years NLCI has worked with communities and youth to create solutions to problems at the community and national level. NLCI develops innovative, in-culture initiatives that help communities prepare young Latinos to succeed. We know it is important that young people be active participants in making their communities a better place in which to live.

Across the country, organizations are building healthy communities and making families strong, keeping young Latinos in school, opening the doors to college and creating opportunities…this is NLCI’s La Promesa Network. A network of more than 150 local agencies and schools on the front lines every day to help youth and their families succeed; so that young Latinos enter the workforce educated, healthy, safe and ready to take on the challenges of the future.

We are seeing the results of this hard work along with many other national and local organizations—more Latinos are enrolled in college and the graduation rate for high school has increased. Childhood obesity is beginning to decrease. We are heading in the right direction, but there is still more to be done.

It is time to come together to ensure the wealth of the nation. Join NLCI by investing in America’s future—young Latinos.

Josephine F. Garza is the Executive Director of the NLCI. For more information contact her at