Introduction: Mapping out the Deserts



The Center for Disease Control cites the lack of access to healthy food options as the main cause of the childhood obesity epidemic that currently has an entire nation in its clutches. Food insecurity and food deserts are two commonly misunderstood terms, although Tuscaloosa and the larger area of west Alabama are prime areas of study on the subject.

A food desert, defined by the Fresh Moves website, is an urban neighborhood or rural area in which residents and there is no healthy food option (grocery store or produce stand) within two miles of a resident. Many of these residents are in low-income areas, and as such have little or no access to transportation to drive to a store with healthy, fresh food options.

The most common types of individuals living in food deserts are disabled children and adults, elderly, and single parents with children under the age of 18. While extensive studies have been done on many locations across the country that have a high number of food deserts, Tuscaloosa has yet to be studied as a singular unit to the reporter’s knowledge. A study done on Birmingham, Ala., the closest city to Tuscaloosa, found that 88,000 people in the city live on blocks where grocers were distant but fast food restaurants and gas stations were readily available. Of the 88,000 in these areas, 23,000 are children under the age of 18. The study did note that not every individual living in food deserts is poor. A number of middle-income neighborhoods can be considered food deserts as well.

To compound the problem, many of these residents in low-income areas are food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of knowledge about where the next meal will come from for an individual. This insecurity, combined with low access to any healthy food options at all, creates an issue that is not easily solvable.

Tuscaloosa News reported that in 2010, one in every five residents in Alabama was on some type of food stamp or federal aid program. A United States health database categorized by county reported that 25 percent of Tuscaloosa county residents are considered obese. Across the entire county, 79 percent of residents reported eating few to no healthy food options, like fruits and vegetables, daily.

Kathryn Oths, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, has worked extensively with food insecurity in the Tuscaloosa area.

“Most research on the topic deals with either metropolitan or rural areas,” Oths said. “Perhaps there is a perception, certainly misguided, that mid-sized cities such as Tuscaloosa do not experience such problems.”

The following sections provide background information about how food insecurity is an issue specific to the Tuscaloosa area, and what some organizations are doing about it. This story was the original work that inspired this website, Food Insecurity Tuscaloosa.