Defining food deserts and food insecurity in Miami

In South Florida, we have our fair share of cuisines from all kinds of cultures and influences. We host internationally renowned food events, we’re home to award-winning chefs and restaurateurs, and more cutting-edge stores and restaurant chains are moving to our area. 

But while many folks have those options in wealthier or touristy areas, there are thousands of locals who can’t access these foodie delights.  And there are even more people living in parts of Miami-Dade County without easy access to a decent grocery store or healthy, fresh food. Folks living in what we’ve come to know as food deserts, and who struggle with something known as food insecurity.

We’re spending the next few weeks digging into this issue. We’ve spoken with some folks about how Miami got to this place and what can be done. And we’ve identified some community leaders working to address the problem. 

We can’t wait to tell you more about them. But first: Let’s start with the basics, and define a few terms:

So what is a food desert? A food desert, according to a mix of USDA standards, is a place where residents don’t have good access to healthy food sources because they’re too far away or stores just don’t sell enough of those items. 

The USDA also factors in things like how much people make, how many people have cars, and whether it’s easy to get around on public transit.

And what is food insecurity? Food insecurity is closely tied to food deserts as the USDA considers a household food insecure if the family doesn’t have the necessary financial resources to even get food. And as folks become more food insecure they also gradually choose to get more affordable, and less healthy, food because of their lack of finances.

How and where is the problem impacting Miami-Dade? As community organizer and Smile Trust founder Valencia Gunder wrote for us a few years ago, the problem exists in areas like Liberty City and is spread out throughout Miami-Dade County. By USDA and U.S. Census standards, as mapped on their Atlas, many stretches of the city of Miami are dealing with low access to supermarkets including parts of: Overtown, Flagami, Allapattah, Little Havana, Coconut Grove and more.

And in the city of Miami Beach for example, the majority of South Beach and Mid Beach don’t meet the low access or low income standards but the sleepier and more working-class areas in North Beach are captured in USDA’s Atlas.

What are some of the added factors unique to Miami? Like the USDA standards mention, declaring an area a food desert has a lot to do with access. Access to things like public transportation and vehicles in our still very car-dependent city. Even if folks live near a bus stop, the system deals with a lack of consistency and there’s no guarantee of how far a person will have to travel outside of their neighborhood to access quality food.

That’s often the only option for people in low-income areas as many of them may not have access to a car, and stores aren’t close enough to access by foot.

And in certain neighborhoods? In the recent past, even if residents in a neighborhood like Overtown tried to get to nearby quality grocery stores like Publix on foot they might face issues like arrests and profiling. 

A 2016 research paper from FIU graduate student William Hall noted that in a majority black neighborhood like Overtown that could take the shape of arrests as folks crossed the Florida East Coast railroad tracks to head east toward Biscayne Boulevard. 

And as a WLRN and Miami Herald project noted, more than 300 people were arrested at the railroad’s intersection at Seventeenth Street the straightest path — as Hall noted in his paper — from Overtown to the nearby Publix on Biscayne. 

Plus an area like Overtown might seem like a food desert, but depending on federal guidelines it may not actually fit the bill — even as residents remain food insecure and struggle to reach the “nearby” healthy food option or lack the resources to consistently buy food from those stores.