Coronavirus Chronicles — Food Desert the Size of a Continent

As recently discussed here, one significant side effect of the necessity to shelter in place, or even to observe strict quarantine procedures, could be a vast increase in obesity among both adults and children. People who are depressed, bored, and frightened are apt to respond by eating simply because food is there.

But what happens when food isn’t there?

Well actually, let’s start by taking a step back. For many Americans, food already isn’t there. In describing food deserts, we have seen the desperate situation of many families who not only have no decent place to shop nearby, but who quite possibly also have no transportation, no child care, and no money. Even in a city with a bus system that happens to still be running, how does a single mom wrangle three kids through a two-way journey on public transportation, plus a grocery store visit, with them in masks and forbidden to touch anything or trust a single person they meet along the way?

What happens when one of the kids needs to go potty, but the store has closed its public restroom because staffing is tight, and management can’t schedule anyone for full-time bathroom cleaning duty, and besides, the customers just steal all the toilet paper? A lot of people who used to think their lives could not be any worse are learning that they were mistaken about that.

Afflicting the comfortable, without comforting the afflicted

Even in the best of times, poverty limits the capacity to put nutrition first. Impoverished mothers, says Lola Olufemi…

[…] do not have the luxury of considering nutritional value: of mulling over and picking the foods that might be best for their child’s development or health. The demands on their body and time mean they can only think about what will fill their stomachs.

Even before this current crisis, millions of children lived in households that rarely came close to affording the amounts of fruit, vegetables, and other beneficial foods to meet any official guideline standards. And no matter how loudly governmental agencies insist on the importance of preventing obesity, those same governments are not always diligent about helping people acquire the means to address those concerns in their daily lives.

The terrible irony is, all the specialized questions and issues about preventing obesity could soon be moot for many people, because they are constrained to eating only what comes their way via the food bank, if there even is one in their area, and if they can even access it.

One of the really cruel aspects of being compelled to stay home with fixed amount of food is that we don’t know how long the lockdown, whether de jure or de facto, will last. A parent can agonize all day over whether to give a child another slice of bread. Trying to ration a known quantity of supplies, to last for an unknown amount of time, is crazy-making.

Degrees of need

Families who are not yet feeling a financial pinch have their limits, too. When every trip to any commercial establishment is a life-or-death risk, how many supermarkets are worth visiting to try to find the most healthful foods? Even people who seemed prepared, who started out with a nice capacious freezer stocked with meat bought at wholesale prices, and a basement full of canned goods, are getting nervous.

Jessica Ball’s family used to depend on food stamps. However much you got, it could not be spent on anything else. She wrote,

With a budgeted amount for food I couldn’t steal from myself to pay other bills, we ate some gorgeous produce…

When the rules changed, Ball learned to feed the family on a strictly budgeted $230 per month. When the pandemic descended, with family members sick with what might or might not be the virus, she started to order online and pick up groceries or have them delivered. What with one thing and another, the monthly food budget was almost gone after a week. She wrote,

I want to be able to compete in the grocery market again. I want to be able to count on affording basic staples and not cry about the higher price of fresh foods my kids need to stay healthy. While I deeply believe in the Stay At Home orders, I’ve drained our bank account and maxed out the credit cards sourcing supplies I could have scrounged way cheaper in person.

It could get to the point where not even money will help. You can advise parents to serve fresh produce until you’re blue in the face, but if no fruit and vegetable pickers show up to harvest the crops; if no one is able to load or drive the trucks, or repair the refrigeration units, or deliver the diesel fuel; and if nobody is available to stock the grocery store shelves… It goes on.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Poor Mothers Do Not Have The Luxury Of Considering The Nutritional Value Of Food,”, 03/18/20
Source: “We’re All Going Broke Buying Food,”, 04/11/20
Image by Studio Incendo/(CC BY 2.0)

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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