The notorious “food desert” has been part of the American vernacular for about a decade. But only now have sociologists, pediatricians, nutritionists and mental health experts come to a general agreement that the lack of proper nutrition at an early age has a verifiable effect on mental health and stability during the important growth period extending from the toddler years through adolescence.

Food deserts are described by public health officials as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options—particularly fresh fruit and vegetables—is at a minimum or non-existent because of the absence of grocery stores within a convenient traveling distance. The most defining characteristic of a food desert is socio-economic: these areas are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas. Because economic forces have driven many grocery store chains away from the inner city, residents must rely on small “mom-and-pop” bodegas or visit the near-by fast food restaurant for discounted junk food that does not supply an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals so important to growing brains. Like most societal options for poor people, the inner city offers few choices for families, and when it comes to good nutrition there is often little choice but to forgo fresh produce and opt for what the pocket book can afford.

Importance of healthy prenatal nutrition

Data collected during the past five years by the Institute of Medicine indicated that neighborhoods within the common food desert frequently have high rates of diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. As well, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, revealed that children who are given a regular diet of junk food before birth and during early childhood are at a significantly increased risk for developing mental health problems—including anxiety and depression. Researchers found that the greater consumption of unhealthy food during pregnancy, as well as a lack of healthy food options for children during the first five years of life, was tied to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems once these children reach the latter years of grade school on through high school and young adulthood.

“This study comes from the largest cohort study in the world and is the first to suggest that poor diet in both pregnant women and their children is a risk factor for children’s mental health problems,” said Felice Jacka, Ph.D., and lead investigator in the study. Jacka and her team demonstrated a strong link between mood and food. A previous study conducted by her team found that a regular intake of nutritious food early in a child’s life may play a role in the prevention and treatment of common mental disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in very young children, and depression and anxiety as they reach the teen years. Apparently, pregnant moms with a regular diet of junk and/or fast food were also significantly more likely to give birth to children who will develop behavioral problems such as tantrums, aggression and defiance.

Poor early diet and mental illness

“We also have data that suggests that maternal and early postnatal dietary factors play an increasing role in the subsequent risk for behavioral and emotional problems in children,” Jacka said. “Both an increased intake of unhealthy foods and a decreased intake of nutrient-rich food in early childhood were independently related to higher internalizing and externalizing behaviors in young children. These behaviors are established in early markers for later mental health problems.”

In another study—this one conducted far closer to home—researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine followed some 543,000 children for 11 years in an effort to learn more about the “… potential associations between individual, family and neighborhood factors” and psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents. The youth were measured for internalizing psychiatric disorders (anxiety and mood) and various “externalizing” disorders which may refer to ADHD and other conduct disorders. Their findings, along with those of participating institutions including Lund University in Sweden and Virginia Commonwealth University, revealed that more than 26,000 children developed a psychiatric disorder, with at least 29 percent of the cases attributed to the child’s family and is related to so-called “neighborhood deprivation.” This term refers to the relation between certain neighborhoods and health-related resources (i.e. availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at a supermarket). When coupled with prior research conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Stanford team posits that this type of nutritional deprivation can increase the cases of Type 2 diabetes and incidents of major depression as the affect child grows older.

Early familial nurturing is vital

“The estimated risks and random effects [of undiagnosed mental illness] indicated that children are strongly affected by both their family and neighborhood environments,” said Jan Sundquist, the lead researcher of the multi-national study. The report revealed further that external factors can have a measurable effect on a child’s mental well-being. Early familial nurturing, initial habits of good nutrition and regular physical activity may have more of an influence on mental stability than was previously believed. “Environmental factors can account for as much as six to eight times as much of the total variation in psychiatric disorders,” Sundquist said. “Our findings call for policies to promote mental health [strategies] that consider potential influences from children’s family and neighborhood environments.”

In 2008, the Los Angeles City Council voted to enact a moratorium on new fast food outlets in a 32-square mile zone encompassing some of South L.A.’s most arid food deserts where about 97 percent of the population is either Black or Latino. They believed then that having fewer fast food outlets would create a greater demand for more and better food choices and thereby lead to lower obesity rates.

This year new findings found that the council’s earlier belief was flat wrong. People in South L.A. did not lose weight per capita, nor did they seek healthier meal choices. Undaunted, the council followed that first legislaton with another measure offering grocery stores and sit-down restaurants that served healthier meals, financial incentives to reinvest in South L.A. Many big outlets such as Safeway and Vons left the area 50 years ago following the Watts Riots and again following the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 (while a few others like Ralphs and Albertsons have left in recent years). The result of these actions of many decades ago was the creation of, arguably, the nation’s first “food desert” which experts believe not only hurts the economic vitality of the community, but also affects childhood nutritional standards because parents—many of them poor and without adequate transportation—have few places to purchase fresh groceries.

South L.A. nation’s first food desert?

In South L.A., the food desert is typically manifested as the lack of mainstream grocery stores. PolicyLink, a national nonprofit which focuses on social and economic inequities, reported in 2010 that areas like South L.A. are exposed to poor quality food at a much higher price than in suburban regions. The densly-populated South L.A. region is home to roughly 800,000 people.

The area, PolicyLink contends, is practically overrun with liquor stores and other small “corner stores” and few of these stores sell fresh food at all. The group reported in 2010 that “if (residents) do have fresh items, the selection is limited and the items are overpriced and inferior. Liquor is the dominant product in most of the stores, creating another set of public-health concerns related to substance abuse and addiction.” In South L.A., healthy food is reportedly hard to find, substandard and expensive. PolicyLink found that residents of South L.A. are “… are paying for bad food policy with their health.”

Also in 2010, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that “millions of mostly low-income” and minority families in America have been condemned to subsist in vast urban food deserts that pose “serious health threats” to their children.

How we feel can be a result of what we eat. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) believes in this adage and reported in 2013 that the intake of a variety of nutritious food is vital in the formation of a healthy brain. Their report revealed that carbohydrates increase serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect. That may be why people often crave carbohydrate-rich foods when they are under stress. Protein-rich foods increase tyrosine, dopamine and norepinephrine, which help to increase alertness. Certain healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids) become part of the membranes of brain cells and control many brain processes. The NCHPAD findings revealed that poor nutrition or a lack of a variety of healthy food can contribute to depression by limiting the availability of these specific nutrients.

Nutrient deficiencies stunt young brains

While nutrient deficiencies are reportedly rare, the NCHPAD reported that certain deficiencies can have an affect on brain health. Thiamine (vitamin B1), which is found in legumes, some seeds and fortified grains, is necessary for maintaining energy supplies and coordinating the activity of nerves and muscles. Thiamine deficiency can therefore lead to weakness, irritability, and depression. Folate (vitamin B9), which is found in leafy greens, legumes and fortified grains, is reported to be essential for supporting red blood cell production, thereby helping prevent homocysteine (a non-protein amino acid) build up in your blood and allowing nerves to function properly. Folate deficiency can result in depression, apathy, fatigue, poor sleep and poor concentration.

The NCHPAD study revealed that low energy levels in children may also be the result of poor meal timing because many children are “latch-key” kids who must supply their own meal prior to a parent(s) coming home from work. Poor households residing within the food desert may not always abide by the tried and true “three-squares” entailing a nutritious breakfast, lunch and dinner. An already tight budget among “working poor” households in the inner city—plus the dearth of local food options—may find more children and young people going without vital nutrition and may possibly be subject to mental health problems as they get older.

The website DoSomething.org, catering to youth involved in social change, revealed that about 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert with nearly half of them residing in “low-income” households. Approximately 2.3 million people (2.2 percent of all U.S. households) live in low-income, rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket. Food deserts are reportedly under reported because the North American Industry Classification system places small corner grocery stores (which primarily sell packaged food) in the same category as supermarkets. Residents living in food deserts have a hard time finding food that is culturally relevant and that meet some of their dietary restrictions such as lactose intolerance, gluten allergies, etc. Also, people living in the poorest socio-economic status areas have a reported 2.5 times exposure to fast food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas. In Chicago, for instance, the death rate from diabetes in a food desert is twice that of areas with access to grocery stores.

Attracting more supermarkets

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a set of recommendations to address the problem of food deserts. The federal government would like to earmark at least 20 percent of the revenue from a proposed tax on sugary drinks to evaluate obesity prevention, early on-set mental illness, early signs of diabetes and even tooth decay by investing in community garden projects, more funding and/or loan accessibility for inner cities to expand existing grocery stores, and also to provide incentives for supermarkets to return and stay in the inner city.

The USDA also recommended that Farmers Market Nutrition and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons/voucheers be accepted by non-profit programs such as mobile markets that promote vegetable consumption in food deserts. Also on their “wish list” would be the establishment of a moratorium on new licensees for convenience stores, pharmacies and fast food outlets within 1,000 feet of a secondary school, and the prohibition of food and beverage advertising in schools and within 1,000 feet of any secondary campus.