How to Exercise Veganism in a Food Desert

Do you live in a city where the nearest grocery store is within a mile, or a rural area where it’s less than ten miles from where you live? If not, do you own or have regular access to a vehicle? If you answered yes to either of these questions, congratulations! You enjoy the privilege of not living in a food desert. 

Generally speaking, a food desert can be defined as a geographic area in which stores providing nutritious, affordable foods are scarce, and a large portion of the residents within that area do not have adequate access to transportation. However, pointing out an area that truly qualifies as a food desert can be tricky since a lot of other factors can affect one’s access to healthy food. Location and transportation are a large part of it, but race, socioeconomic status, family size and many other issues play into who may find themselves faced with this struggle and who may not. Most official definitions of food deserts have also been criticized for one reason or another, such as the fact that only large chain grocery stores are used to measure the availability of healthy food is in an area, ignoring the existence of farmer’s markets, co-ops, and other sources of nutritious foods. Additionally, living in an area designated a food desert does not necessarily mean you are low-income – for example, in some trendy, urban neighborhoods – though the majority do tend to be in areas with higher rates of poverty. Black and Latino people also tend to be more adversely affected than the rest of the population. 

Urban food deserts form when grocery retailers find it more profitable to shut down stores in inner-city neighborhoods and open stores in suburbs, which cost less to transport food to, have lower crime rates, and tend to have populations with higher incomes. Rural food deserts occur in areas where the population is so sparse that grocery stores there would have fewer customers and sluggish sales. No matter how vital, grocery stores are businesses and profit will always be a priority. 

Research has also shown higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other potentially fatal “lifestyle” health issues in populations within areas designated food deserts. Recognizing this as a serious public health crisis, many people within and outside of these areas have devised ways of dealing with this issue. Local residents have begun setting up community gardens, farmer’s markets, co-ops, and even attempted to open their own grocery stores. Michelle Obama vowed to eliminate food deserts as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign by providing incentive to large food retailers to open stores in underserved neighborhoods, though there is some skepticism on how well this will work. Some studies show that even when access to healthy food is introduced into these areas, most residents continue to stick with old habits of purchasing unhealthy foods, suggesting there are also sociocultural and educational issues that must be addressed. 

There is much debate among vegans and non-vegans alike about whether it is even possible to be vegan in high poverty areas designated food deserts. It seems that most people get this idea from the false association of a vegan diet with a healthy one, though there are plenty of “junk food vegans” out there who can tell you otherwise. Despite this, there are actually vegans who live in these areas, myself being one at times, though it would be extremely difficult to say how many there are. 

The experience of a vegan trying to keep themselves fed in a food desert is fairly parallel to the experience of a non-vegan, the only difference being that it involves making different choices from the limited options available. Regardless of one’s diet, it is still likely to be unhealthy under these circumstances. Options are usually limited to whatever fast food joints, convenience stores, and restaurants with delivery services are available. I have personally experienced life within a food desert a few times in my life before transitioning to vegan and after. In one city I once live in, the only access to food I had was a Taco Bell a block away and a Walgreens half a mile away. I had no transportation, and traveling to the nearest grocery store would have meant spending money I didn’t have on bus fare or walking a three hour round trip. Most of my diet consisted of bean burritos, chips, instant rice, pasta, sugary juice drinks, and every once in a great while, the occasional produce my friend would find on her dumpster diving excursions. Resources such as lists of vegan fast food menu items and “accidentally vegan” products can be useful in these circumstances, however, there is still the danger of missing vital nutrients and consuming way more than required amounts of fat and sodium which can lead to serious long term health effects. 

It is important to note that the ethical basis of veganism is compassion, therefore, if someone is so food insecure that they face starvation and the only food they have available includes ingredients that come from animals, it would show a lack of compassion on our part to judge them for simply trying to survive. We must also remember that poverty is extremely stressful, so advocating veganism to someone who has a limited income and is culturally inclined to animal based foods can make them feel like you’re just piling more on top of them to worry about. It is imperative to consider all sides, especially aspects of class and race, while tackling the issue of food deserts and the negative health effects it has on the lives of the people living in them. All oppression and exploitation shares a common framework, and if we are to diminish any one form of it, we must be mindful of all others. 

In the meantime, if you wish to help those suffering from this issue, support community initiatives focused on creating access to healthier food in these areas. Find out if there is a local community garden in an underserved high poverty area near you, or even if you happen to live in one yourself, and volunteer as much time as you can. Most importantly, never stop questioning the classism and racism that puts people in such precarious positions and demanding that those in charge also put their time and energy toward changing it.