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What Does It Mean to Provide ‘Food Access’?


If you drive through most underresourced communities in the U.S., you’ll notice the prevalence of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, along with billboards and other signs marketing those locations. You may also notice pollution, lack of greenery, and poor waste management. 

What you’re less likely to see is grocery stores…or anywhere you can get a vegetable.

Around 23 million people live in these neighborhoods, predominantly in low-income housing or homeless shelters. In one area of Harlem, for example - in a community Replate serves - there are 14 homeless shelters in a 4-block radius, and 55 fast food restaurants nearby.

That’s the norm. 

A CDC study found that about 32 percent of people who earn less than the federal poverty line — $32,630 a year for a family of four — ate fast food daily.

Fast food tends to be high in sugar, salt, saturated or trans fats, and many processed preservatives and ingredients. Eating an excessive amount can increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation, and allergies. 

For vulnerable populations without health insurance, this diet increases the risk of chronic disease. 

Yet what alternatives are there?

Food access refers to the ability of individuals and communities to obtain and consume an adequate and nutritious diet, and is a critical aspect of food security. It can be influenced by various economic, social, and geographic factors, including proximity to food retailers, such as grocery stores, affordability of nutritious options, availability of reliable transportation, and ability to support food preferences, cultural practices, and social norms. the relationship between historically redlined neighborhoods and current lack of access. 

What some refer to as “supermarket redlining,” there are documented cases of retailers closing stores or avoiding presence in low income neighborhoods in favor of wealthy suburbs, a result of historical and systemic racism. Researchers have found that neighborhoods with a greater composition of Black people have fewer supermarkets and reduced access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and conversely, more dollar stores and fast food chains.

Efforts to improve food access often involve policy interventions, community initiatives, advocacy to address these various factors, and of course, food recovery. Unfortunately, capitalist pressures often result in such disadvantages, as stores are forced to compete and hit certain metrics to stay afloat, and seek out more profitable markets.

Professional food recovery services not only provide nutritious meals to areas without access, but do so consistently and reliably. Food banks, pantries, and shelters rely on food recovery efforts to stock their shelves with food donations. These organizations serve as critical resources for individuals and families experiencing food insecurity, helping them access food they might not otherwise afford.

Additionally, nonprofits working to rebuild neighborhoods and support community advancement also benefit from food donations, as it alleviates a budget and time constraint and allows them to focus on their core mission. Examples include some of Replate’s partners like Project Rousseau, which offers educational support to youth; Covenant House, which provides safe housing to youth experiencing homelessness; and Kells Park Community Council, which hosts educational events and produce markets for those in Southside Chicago.

The impact can be beneficial and cost effective for businesses too. Food donors receive tax benefits, boost ESG and CSR initiatives, and prevent waste from hitting the landfill.

And in areas facing food apartheid, where access to fresh and healthy food is limited, food recovery efforts can bridge the gap by providing these communities with nutritious options that may not be readily available through local retailers.

Learn more about Replate here.

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