SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Food Empowerment Project (FEP), a nonprofit group, has released a food availability study for the Santa Clara County, Calif., area, exploring the unequal accessibility of healthy foods in communities of color and lower-income communities compared to that of higher-income communities such as Silicon Valley.
The study, “Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” reveals that higher-income areas have more than twice as many large supermarkets per capita as lower-income areas. In contrast, the report shows that lower-income communities have nearly twice as many liquor stores and 50% more markets that sell an abundance of meat products; neither of these types of stores offers a variety of healthy food options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.
“With all of the wealth in Silicon Valley, it is unacceptable that certain communities do not have access to fruits, vegetables and other healthy food alternatives,” said FEP’s Executive Director Lauren Ornelas in a statement. “Such a food injustice can lead to a host of health problems, including type-2 diabetes and obesity. That this can happen in our own backyard is inexcusable. It’s really a form of environmental racism.”
FEP found that low-income households have virtually no access to organic produce in their communities. Moreover, FEP discovered that plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products (such as tofu, meat-free burgers and soymilk) are extremely limited in these communities, where consumers do not have the same access to large supermarkets as do consumers in higher-income communities.
“This is especially alarming when you consider that many people of color are lactose intolerant, so the lack of dairy alternatives has serious health implications,” said Ornelas. “In addition, the more that people learn about how farmed animals are treated, the more they want to avoid animal-based products in their diets.”
FEP conducted the survey in March 2009. A dozen volunteers visited Santa Clara County retail businesses, such as supermarkets and convenience stores, in both higher-income and lower-income neighborhoods to survey the residents’ access to healthy foods. FEP’s criteria for healthy foods consisted of fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as alternatives to meat and dairy products.
FEP believes that the problem can be fixed by policymakers and communities combining their efforts, and the group’s report covers a variety of recommendations, such as clarifying the federal North American Industry Classification System, which currently counts small retail outlets as grocery stores, even if they sell mostly alcohol and junk food. “Our goal is to work with the communities suffering the biggest food inequities,” says Ornelas. “We know that a more just food system in the U.S. is possible if everyone works together.”