'You do what you have to do to make a dollar spread'

What are food insecurity and food deserts?

CM Life Photo Illustration (CM Life | Jo Kenoshmeg)

Across the country, in communities large and small, wealthy and poor, citizens struggle with decisions like whether they should fuel up the car or their bellies.   

According to the Congressional Research Service and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are often referred to as an area that lacks access to healthy food measured by distance between a household and a store. This can include resources that may affect accessibility such as transportation.  

To put this in perspective, parts of Isabella County qualify as a food desert. In Mount Pleasant on the map, a majority of Lincoln Township, between East Remus and East Millbrook roads and from South Meridian Road east to the edge of campus, qualifies as a food desert. The area stretches all the way down East Millbrook road to South Summerton road following down to Potter Creek. 

Symantha Dattilo is a volunteer assistant director at the Central Michigan University Food Pantry on campus. She said that food deserts are not based on populations.  

“It (food insecurity) does not live in an isolated way,” Dattilo said. “Communities, regardless of what their geographical makeup looks like (experience food insecurity)...because it’s part of a system of an entire area that is failing for one reason or another.”  

Food deserts, food insecurity and poverty

According to the USDA, food deserts don’t necessarily mean there is absolutely zero access to food, but can mean a lack of nutritional value. Often, places that experience a food desert, also referred to as a food swamp, use convenience stores and gas stations for their main source of calories.  

“Low-income residents of these neighborhoods and those who lack transportation rely more on smaller neighborhood stores that may not carry healthy foods or may offer them only at higher prices,” the USDA said.  

According to the USDA, some specifics of a food desert include: 

• The ability to access healthy food, measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores within the area.  

• Resources that may affect ones accessibility including income and personal transportation.  

• Community resources such as income of the area and public transportation. 

Dattilo defined food deserts as a lack of having access to food, and said it is related to food insecurity.

“(Food insecurity) is a basic lack of access to healthy nutritious food that is also affordable,” she said.  

A USDA study found that 12.8% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point during 2022. That is approximately 17 million households.  

“Food insecurity and food deserts almost always coincide with higher poverty rates,” Dattilo said. “On a broader scale … sometimes, especially in areas like the Upper Peninsula ... the communities are more widespread. So having access to grocery stores (is difficult) because of the geographical layout.”  

However, urban, rural or suburban areas may see food deserts as well, Dattilo said.

“Having a lack of access to a food source … often means these communities are also going without other basic resources (such as) education, public transportation, hospitals and other options for medical care that are affordable,” Dattilo said. 

Sara Schafer, the executive director at the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen, said inflation has a lot to do with why it’s difficult to obtain affordable and nutritious food.  

“People at this time are having a difficult time staying afloat because inflation has increased so much in the last several years, especially post-pandemic,” Schafer said.  

Food insecurity’s impacts on physical and mental health

An annual survey was done in 2022 by the USDA on low food security households and the conditions that these households endure.  

“Forty six percent reported having lost weight because they did not have enough money for food,” according to the USDA.  

Also, chronic illnesses or a weakened immune system can come from food insecurity, Dattilo said. Food insecurity increases risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease and mental health disorders, according to the National Institute of Health.

“Sometimes we’re seeing people on their worst day … it’s not easy to come in and ask for help,” Schafer said. “We’ve seen in this community an increase in substance abuse … so we try our best to complete our mission everyday, which is to share a free meal and a warm, safe environment.” 

Dattilo said that food insecurity can impact your sense of belonging on campus.  

“We know specifically how it impacts college students,” Dattilo said. “Having a more difficult time finding a sense of belonging ... impacts your mental health and your ability to make friends and build community.”  

CMU students eat and study Tuesday, Oct. 10 in Central Eats. Many students utilize the space as a place to grab food, study and socialize. (Ella Miller | CM Life)

Food insecurity affects how you focus and function in everyday life, according to the USDA.

“Poor nutrition and diet-related diseases have far-reaching impacts, including decreased academic achievement and increased financial stress,” the USDA said. “That translates to societal impacts as well … (including) lower productivity, weakened military readiness, widening health disparities and skyrocketing health care costs.”  

Food access and choices

Food deserts can affect the food choices that someone may make.  

“If (they are) unable to get access to those healthy foods in a way that is affordable — whatever affordable means to an individual and their families — that means they are making those choices to not eat or to purchase the food that is less healthy for them, ”Dattilo said.  

Schafer said people have to make choices on where to spend their money, whether the money will go towards groceries, gas or rent. 

“You do what you have to do to make a dollar spread,” Schafer said. 

She said that for some people, the meals of the week would sometimes be milk, bread and peanut butter and jelly. 

“Obviously that’s not as nutritious of a choice as if you were to buy ingredients to make a salad,” Schafer said. “I think people are just doing the best with what they’ve got. ... Sometimes that does come down to people having to make decisions that maybe are in the better interest of them being able to just have a meal, and not necessarily focusing on the nutritional things.”  

“I think people are just doing the best with what they’ve got. ... Sometimes that does come down to people having to make decisions that maybe are in the better interest of them being able to just have a meal, and not necessarily focusing on the nutritional things.”

Resources and future

Studies have been done to find solutions to food insecurity and food deserts in the U.S. The USDA and Economic Research Service (ERS) have funded a number of grants through a program titled “25 Years of Food Security Measurement: Answered Questions and Further Research” geared toward finding solutions.  

“The purpose of the program is to foster research related to the past 25 years of U.S. household food security research and to explore feasible evidence-based improvements looking forward,” the USDA said.  

Other resources, such as food pantries, soup kitchens and organizations, are available for those who may need it or those who would like to volunteer in reducing the stress of food insecurity and food deserts.  

The CMU Student Food Pantry works to alleviate the stress of food. The pantry can be reached through email at foodpantry@cmich.edu or by calling 989-774-7685. It is located at 1 Algonquin Ct. The main office can be found in Room 106 at the Bovee University Center. 

The Isabella Community Soup Kitchen can be reached through email at info@icsk.org or call 989-772-7392. It is located at 621 S. Adams St.  

For a visual of the Food Access Atlas map, visit www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas/.