Food is the First Medicine: How Food Deserts Affect Healthcare

A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow of Iron Man and Shakespeare in Love recently tried to live off a food stamp budget for a week for the #FoodBankNYCChallenge. Her groceries, laid out and arranged neatly on her marble counter, looked more like rabbit food than a sustainable diet for a week. Her purchases included various fruits & vegetables, beans, brown rice & eggs, avocado, garlic, parsley, and seven limes.

Within four days the actress gave up, stating publicly, “My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days.” Little did she realize that her small budget was only part of the nutrition problem crippling the United States. Even scavenging for money for healthy, more expensive alternatives to junk food, soda, and snacks, families living in low-income locations often have no access to healthy products. The USDA estimates that 23.5 people in this nation are stranded in food deserts.

Food deserts exist in rural and urban impoverished areas with limited access to affordable, nutritious foods. In Baltimore, the sixth poorest city in America, one quarter of civilians live in food deserts. Families in food deserts have little or no access to fresh produce, low-fat dairy, whole grains, or other healthy alternatives, like Paltrow did.

Often, the only option in a food desert is fast food and convenience store products. These families struggle with obesity and chronic, diet-induced conditions that lead to heart trouble and premature death. As geographical scientist Paul Robinson acutely put it, “food is the first medicine. The doctor tells you you’re pre-diabetic and to eat healthy, but where do you go to get the food that the doctor has told you to eat?”


Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipemia, gout, and arthritis—all of these chronic diseases may result from poor food choices and a lack of fresh, unprocessed foods. Doctors and health care providers try to educate patients in food deserts about eating healthy, but without the money, access to healthy food, or a history of eating healthy, it can be difficult to affect positive long-term change.

Doctors, public health officials, and non-profits are trying to tackle this health epidemic.  Farmers markets are beginning to accept food stamps. Non-profits are attempting to bring community gardens and healthy food trucks to impoverished, urban areas. There may be no capitol gain to opening a supermarket in a poor area with less money and less demand for healthy food, but the effect on a community would be paramount.

A good grocery store would not only generate jobs within a community; it would help provide healthy meals to families and break a cycle of poor nutrition. It is not enough, but it is a start. If we can sympathize with skinny, starving Gwyneth Paltrow, surely we can find a voice for these impoverished communities too.