They are called food deserts, usually impoverished areas that lack access to grocery stores and other sources of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. People who live in them often fall back on corner-store foods that are high in sugars and fats, and generally bad for their health.
Such decisions contribute to a host of health threats, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It’s just one link in Renee Walker’s chain of research about how poverty affects nutrition and health.
An assistant professor in UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health, Walker has conducted extensive interviews with people to learn how they make basic choices about food. “How do they get through the day?” she asks. “What are some of the decisions and behavioral pieces that go into just getting food?”
People might have to choose between paying the rent and buying food, or between feeding their children and feeding themselves. Access to transportation affects choices about where to shop and how much to buy. People who live in food deserts prioritize factors like calorie density and the necessity to make food stretch more than those who have easy access to food.
And though she’s found that food availability matters, the problem goes beyond just buying groceries. “It’s not just access to nutritious food,” Walker says. “People don’t have stoves. They don’t have things as basic as knives for food preparation.”
It’s a complex web of factors, and there are no easy answers. “The climate around Milwaukee is one of people seeing the problem and wanting to do something,” Walker says. “But to tackle these issues, it’s got to be all hands on deck.”