“Food Deserts” and the Role of the Social Worker

Anyone who has been involved in urban social work for a while knows that the lack of good, nutritious food in low-income, ethnic/minority neighborhoods is a serious problem.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009, 11.5 million people in the US live in such locations and these communities are generally miles away from the nearest supermarket or any other source to buy fresh, healthy produce from. As it is 2017, the number has increased exponentially since 2009 and it is high time that we took a closer look at the problem.

The “Food Deserts”

As mentioned earlier, the lack of healthy food sources near these communities creates an unhealthy eating pattern there, which is why they are often referred to as “food deserts.” A predominant reliance on junk food leads to obesity, heart diseases and an overall unhealthy life in such communities. It has been found that while big supermarket brands are reluctant to open shop in low-income, urban communities, fast food chains and convenience stores are particularly fond of these neighborhoods, which further adds to the problem.

High Price vs. Low Income

The problem that organic, fresh produce is unavailable at a nearby store is compounded by the high price of the products, transport costs and most of all, the low-income aspect. Fortunately, a handful of online resources like backtofarm.com have made information available to everyone regarding the importance of healthy food, the basics of organic farming and where to buy everything without always having to break the bank.

The Impact of Social Workers

This issue of scarcity, unavailability and unaffordable nature of healthy foods in low-income, ethnic, minority communities can be improved by social workers through their work with the agencies that are already in place to improve the situation. If the resources are available, then new initiatives are also welcome. It is important though that the situation is tackled only by experienced and competent social workers as the problem has deep social, economic, cultural and ethnic roots. In summary, the primary roles of the social worker to improve the situation can be categorized under the following three points.

  1. The use of community development skills to educate the concerned communities about the problem and to work with grassroots organizations for addressing issues.
  2. The use of administrative and management skills to initiate programs that can tackle the problem in the best way possible, under the given circumstances of the community and the available resources
  3. They can help write grants to increase food security funds from government and private organizations

Knowledge and understanding are the two most important factors here, followed by funding. Not everyone in these low-income, minority communities realize how important it is to eat healthy, fresh produce or how harmful it is to go to a nearby fast food chain and eat something that doesn’t cost much in terms of money today, but will cost a lot more in terms of health conditions down the line. It is the job of the social worker to educate them about the problem first and then point out the solutions.

Photo by Mark Bonica


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