Anybody forced to live in a desert would find survival in a barren, desolate wasteland difficult. But through a series of public policies and private-sector decisions, millions of mostly low-income and minority families in America have been condemned to subsist in vast urban “food deserts” that pose serious health threats to their children.

Food deserts, areas with no or distant grocery stores, are communities where residents can buy food only at “convenience” stores, liquor stores, gas stations, or fast-food restaurants that sell foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. Getting to stores that offer a greater variety of foods is often challenging to families without cars, especially when many city and state governments have cut back on public transportation. While many Americans are resolving to eat more healthfully, children and families living in “food deserts” lack that choice.

The health and vitality of people living in many urban neighborhoods can differ from block to block, depending on how near they are to a grocery store offering reasonably priced fresh fruits and vegetables. In many urban neighborhoods it’s easier to buy a pint of liquor, a fried chicken wing, or a gun than a fresh tomato. The failure of supermarket chains to locate stores with fresh produce to inner-city communities—a form of food redlining—has a profound impact on the nutrition of families lacking cars or access to public transportation.

Tragically, children in families trapped in food-desert zip codes risk becoming obese and developing early hypertension and full-blown high blood pressure, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Food deserts originated with the urban “white flight” of the 1960s and 1970s. According to PolicyLink, a national nonprofit focused on social and economic inequities, when white, middle-class residents left cities for the suburbs, grocery stores followed. In urban communities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and from Detroit to Houston, the nearest grocery store is twice as far as the nearest fast-food restaurant. About 400,000 Chicago residents live in areas with nearby fast-food restaurants, but no or distant grocery stores.

A 2003 University of Michigan study found only five grocery stores larger than 20,000 square feet in Detroit. And while 24 percent of Washington, D.C.’s population lives in the predominantly black areas east of the Anacostia River, only 15 percent of the city’s 360 food stores are there.

Nationally, typical low-income neighborhoods have 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher-income neighborhoods. The problem isn’t only in urban areas; food deserts are also common in many rural communities. Across the country, too many families are forced to do their food shopping in convenience stores stocked with overpriced, highly processed, fatty food with low nutritional value, often past its expiration date. In stores like these, staples such as milk can cost more than at supermarkets.

It’s good to know that a number of groups are addressing this problem. The Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization Food Trust is working with schools to provide healthy food and offering corner stores financing to stock healthy food and upgrade their refrigeration systems to better preserve fruits and vegetables. Various organizations are seeking federal and local anti-obesity funding to replicate this effort. Such programs can make a real difference. In a 2002 study, University of North Carolina researchers found African Americans ate an average of 32 percent more fruits and vegetables for each supermarket in their census tract.

Access to nutritious food is a matter of social justice. We must follow the lead of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose community garden at the White House has focused public attention on better nutrition as part of a national movement, to improve children’s health and prevent obesity and diabetes. If we fail to ensure our children receive better nutrition, our nation will pay a heavy price in increased rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, resulting in the loss of resources and productivity. As legislators struggle to reform our nation’s health-care system and contain its skyrocketing costs, addressing the problem of access to nutritious food is an obvious step.

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Marian Wright EdelmanBy

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund. www.childrensdefense.org.