The issue of food scarcity among urban, low-income ethnic minority groups is of the utmost importance to the field of social work. Eleven-and-a-half million people in the United States live in low income areas that are more than one mile away from a supermarket or grocery chain that sells fresh produce at an affordable price (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2009).
These urban communities, called “food deserts,” most prominently affect residents of rural, low-income, and minority communities. Poor dietary patterns lead to a high risk of obesity and other diet-related diseases, which are experienced at higher rates by individuals from low-income households and ethnic minorities. Large grocery and supermarket chains are less likely to locate new stores in low-income urban communities and tend to open new locations in expansive retail centers that are not easily accessible without automobiles. There is also a lack of grocery stores in urban areas but a higher prevalence of fast food chains and convenience stores, which is a structural inequality that disproportionately affects low-income and ethnic minority populations. The high price of healthy food, along with the low wages paid to farm workers and food service workers, reflects an additional structural inequality in the broader food system.
This disparity in accessibility to healthy and fresh produce among low-income and ethnic minority communities and the resulting disparities in health outcomes are issues that demand the involvement of the social work field. Although focusing on individual health decisions is important in developing healthy eating habits and curbing long-term chronic illnesses, such efforts will only go so far if members of the community are unable to access and afford the food that will make them healthy.
Social workers can greatly contribute to the efforts already in place to address issues of food security and accessibility in the United States. As social movements to address food security involve individuals, families, and communities, social workers’ consideration of the bio-social-psycho-cultural realities of individuals and communities can contribute to addressing food-related concerns in an effective and culturally competent way.
Social workers’ community development skills can enable collaboration with grassroots organizers who seek to address food security concerns in a neighborhood or community setting, while the program management and administrative skills developed by social workers can help create effective programs that strive to address such needs in a holistic way. Social workers can also use their grant writing skills to help programs generate funding to address the food security needs of communities. Lastly, social workers can apply their knowledge and training regarding policy writing and analysis to address food security issues on a broader level, leading to long-term, systemic change to ensure equal access to healthy food and improved health outcomes for all citizens.
Melanie Dosen is an MSW candidate at California State University, Long Beach and can be reached at email@example.com
United States Department of Agriculture (2009). Access to affordable and nutritious food: Measuring and understanding food deserts and their consequences. (Economic Research Service.) Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.