By Katie Byers
After completing a 12 hour day of grueling labor at two jobs, a mother picks up her kids from a local non-profit daycare. With 2 rambunctious 9 year olds and a toddler in hand, she must choose between a 7.2 mile round-trip journey to the closest supermarket or a 1 mile trek to the local gas station to pick up instant mac’n’cheese and off brand Doritos. She thinks about holding both her toddler and a bundle of groceries whilst corralling the other children and how she’ll manage the 3-hour-long trip after scrubbing tables and taking orders all day. As the sun begins to set in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Kansas City, she opts for the gas station. This will not be the last day that she is forced to make a decision that will hurt her family in the long run. Every year, 23 million people living in food deserts—defined by the Food Empowerment Project as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance”—will be forced to make the same decision.
Kansas City, Missouri contains of one of the most extreme food deserts in the United States. Kansas City has a population of around 460,000 people, but the low cost of land allowed the city to spread out over 319 square miles. More than a fifth of the city lives below the poverty line, compared to only 12.7% of the population of the United States, according to the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research. The city is known for barbeque and the Royals, but their true claim to fame should be their inability to care for their impoverished suffering at the hands of food deserts. A quick Google search of food deserts will uncover article after article that supposedly debunk this topic. Food deserts are unlikely to exist in large, densely populated cities, but sparsely populated areas are more likely than not to have them, and serve as a major issue to people in Kansas City.
Kansas City is particularly susceptible to food deserts because of the low population density and lack of adequate public transportation. Grocery stores tend to space out their stores to have the same number of shoppers per store, which ensures the highest profit per store. This proves detrimental to those who rely on public transportation or walking. The lack of walkability of the city and sparse density of grocery stores proves to be a double edged sword which creates the perfect scenario for food deserts. Kansas City is the 42nd most walkable city in the United States, according to Walkscore.com. Simply put, living in Kansas City requires another mode of transportation besides walking. Kansas City covers 319 square miles, an almost unheard size of for a city of less than 460,000 people. Miami, in comparison, has a population of about 463,000 people and covers only 55 square miles. The average number of citizens it takes to sustain one grocery store is about 5,500, which gives Miami a grocery store every .65 miles and Kansas City one every 3.84 miles, respective to their population density according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average US citizen makes a grocery trip 1.5 times every week, which puts the total trips in a year to 78, according to Statista. This would mean the average trip to the grocery store would force someone without adequate transportation to walk almost 300 miles per year to find healthy and sustainable food sources. This statistic doesn’t even begin to address that people without a car can only buy as much as they can carry, forcing them to make additional trips. This paired with multiple jobs or lack of childcare makes grocery shopping an unattainable goal for most lower class citizens in Kansas City. No wonder many families opt for the closer fast food restaurants or bodegas to sustain their family, which later leads to greater health issues.
The lack of walkability of the city, however, wouldn’t be a problem if Kansas City had adequate public transportation to make up for it. Public transportation in Kansas City was ranked 20th out of 25 cities, according to a news release by Walkscore.com via PR Newswire. Kansas City has 57 transit lines which utilizes 300 buses and 1 light rail line, which is more for show than legitimate transportation, according to the Kansas City Area Transport Authority. For comparison, Miami has less than 5,000 more people, but was awarded a Walk Score of 79, and has a fleet of 1,000 busses and a metrorail system. Miami serves as an ideal comparison point for their lack of food deserts, which can be attributed to their adequate transportation and abundance of grocery stores. Kansas City’s public transportation leaves impoverished people to walk or take long and indirect routes using buses.
So, what can be done to combat these food deserts? In Topeka, Kansas, when one of their last remaining grocery stores shut down because of the sparse population and lack of expendable income, it was clear that changes had to be made. The government stepped in to encourage a Hy Vee to open in its place, and offered 20 years of tax subsidies to ensure the grocery store would continue to serve the public, according to The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The store made it incredibly clear that without the help from the government, there would have been no way that they would have opened the store. Though Topeka is much smaller than Kansas City, the demographics and issues with food deserts are similar, and a similar tax incentive to companies can be applied without too much risk.
Topeka did, however, face backlash from citizens and government officials because of the increase in taxes. Though an increase in taxes is noteworthy, the long term effects of eliminating food deserts could plummet the $190 billion spent annually on obesity related diseases. This doesn’t even begin to mention the quality of life change for people deeply affected by food deserts. The unfair burden shared by poor people will be lessened, as 8 mile walks to and from the grocery store can become 2 or 3 miles. Fiscally, it makes sense for the government to fix food deserts, but it has more benefits to the people actually affected by them.
Government money isn’t an easy thing to come by, however. Another possible solution to food deserts is being done by a store called Rollin’ Grocer. This for-profit group customized a mobile grocery store inside a 24-foot trailer that travels around Kansas City to food deserts, according to Forbes. This idea isn’t new—many organizations have done this with fresh produce, but this is the first true grocery store on wheels. Here, customers can find fresh meat, produce, toiletries, and anything else someone could find at their local grocery store. It started when a friend of one founder told her that she travels out of her way to shop at a “white grocery store”, because her local ones didn’t have the same access to fresh, healthy food, says Forbes. The truck makes 5 stops 6 days a week, which creates easy access for as many people as possible. Rollin’ Grocer has received no grants from the government, and if we can encourage more businesses like these to start up, food deserts can become a thing of the past.
Food deserts, though often ignored, are creating major problems for the citizens directly affected and the country as a whole. If communities continue to ignore the health and well being of their citizens, the detrimental effects of food deserts will only grow. If Kansas City wishes to compete with other major cities for business and labor, the city must first establish laws that work for their current citizens and ensure that further growth won’t worsen the state of transportation and food deserts. Kansas City doesn’t need another museum or fountain—it needs grocery stores closer than 4 miles away.