Food deserts are areas where residents have limited or no access to reliable supplies of fresh and healthy food in grocery stores and food markets. In cities, food deserts generally are associated with low income neighborhoods. In rural areas they are generally found where resident have limited or no access to automobiles and/or public transportation.
Studies link food deserts with poorer overall health and a reliance on fast food and highly processed snack foods. Access is mostly a question of poverty, and poverty resides in the realm of social justice. Poverty, many argue, comes from our current economic system and perverse subsidies and externalities. Those critiques of modern economics often cite the market failures and discount rates that do not allow for widespread poverty to be abated.
(CC Image of urban community garden by Joshjrowe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Food deserts exist so ubiquitously in this country, and represent a challenge so large, that it is hard to imagine how to address it. However, there are many good proposed solutions and measures that aim to alleviate the food desert challenge. Farmers markets are a good start, but they tend to favor middle-class and upper middle-class income ranges. Better solutions may be to provide free or income-based access to land (in the food deserts), so that poorer income classes may be able to cultivate their own food. This approach could include providing workshops on how to sow, grow, compost, water, feed, and other necessary knowledge to get new growers started. Furthermore, providing a program or network that helps low-income peoples create co-ops, seed networks, and other communal actions that builds strength through numbers will provide much needed empowerment to the disadvantaged classes.
This would be a good start, but punitive and restrictive zoning and trade laws on a local and federal level seriously prohibit the necessary actions from taking place for the disadvantaged to break free of the social and economic factors that directly contribute to food deserts. That is, for example, if people want to create co-ops, co-housing, or intentional communities to use their collective power, or grow food to sell locally, they must fight an up-hill battle. Voices on this topic are not often heard, as the disadvantaged classes spend so much of their time working low-wage jobs and are generally lowest priority for elected officials. The level of education and time-off needed to have ones voice heard in changing the laws is too much for most low-income classes.
The trade laws in this country such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) also force the prices of food so low, that food producers here must compete with those overseas workers who work for pennies a day. This has forced the commodification of wheat, soy, corn, cotton, beets, and hay to be the primary products we produce, and these products are heavily subsidized with perverse subsidies in order to remain economically viable.
(CC Image (left) of urban farming/gardening by Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
In short, the food desert problems we face in Oshkosh and around the world, emanate from a multitude of issues that must be systematically identified and addressed in order that we may begin to build a more just and sustainable world for us all.
Local community based non-profit organization here in Oshkosh Wisconsin - Growing Oshkosh - headed by UW Oshkosh graduate Dani Stolley is a great example of trying to alleviate the food desert issue. The goal stated in Growing Oshkosh's website states:
"Our vision is to help alleviate local civic, social and environmental challenges simultaneously by revitalizing, repurposing and beautifying vacant or unused urban property into inclusive, awe-inspiring, job-creating places of pride, as well as educational living learning labs for youth, adults and seniors. Ultimately, we envision a diverse network of productive and educational demonstration sites throughout Winnebagoland featuring the latest in local, urban food production methods and technologies, including: composting and vermicomposting; aquaponics (growing with fish); extended-season gardening; year-round, indoor farming in hoophouses (including vertical growing) all—ideally—while utilizing renewable energy and other sustainable technologies".
(Image of Oshkosh food desert courtesy of www.ers.usda.gov)