SXSW Panel Recap: Solving the Food Desert Dilemma

McDonald’s hamburgers should not cost $1 in any universe

Monday’s “Solving the Food Desert Dilemma” panel discussed a recent study from economists at NYU, Stanford, and the University of Chicago that found 55% of all U.S. ZIP codes with a median income below $25,000 are what's called "food deserts."

Photo by Jessi Devenyns

These deserts are neighborhoods where access to fresh foods is a fairy tale and the only meal options are high-calorie, processed foods. While there can be endless policy debates on the root cause of this epidemic, panelists Sam Polk of Everytable, Asha Walker of Health in the Hood, and Olympia Auset of Süprmarkt say that the problem comes down to the policymakers themselves. “People are making money off the fact that certain communities are unhealthy,” said Auset, the founder of Süprmarkt, a grocery service that brings fresh, organic produce weekly to neighborhoods without supermarkets.

Panelists highlighted this disparity by showing that the amount of money spent on groceries in lower-income and affluent neighborhoods was about equal, and yet, unlike areas with easy access to a multitude of grocers for every imaginable type of dietary restriction or culinary preference, there are not even fresh options for many families living inside food deserts. The result is that lower-income families’ money is spent on fast food and highly processed, “center-aisle” products. Panelists agreed that in no universe should a McDonald’s hamburger cost $1 – the ingredients themselves aren’t even that cheap. However, thanks to government subsidies for commodity crops, the structure of American food systems has been skewed.

This distortion, however, is not irreparable. Demand for fresh food is growing in food deserts and the panelists argued that it is a lucrative market that entrepreneurs are just beginning to tap into. After all, raw ingredients will never go out of style because we’re not going to stop eating, hopefully. Through community gardens, fresh produce delivery, and healthy grab-and-go meal options, there is a way not just to eliminate food deserts in this country but also to reduce the occurrence of preventable diseases which, according to Auset, translates to $1 billion spent every day on preventable health care for American taxpayers.

Solving the Food Desert Dilemma

Monday, March 11, JW Marriott Salon C

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