miami-fort lauderdale

Food Deserts in South Florida Linked to Cardiovascular Disease

According to Isis Zambrana, board president of the American Heart Association of South Florida, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area has the highest number of people living in food deserts in the state

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Miami Gardens resident Zelma Chisholm has defied the odds: she’s had a heart attack three times, and is still alive to talk about it.

“You think you’re going to die,” Chisholm told NBC 6. “That’s the first thing that comes to your mind.”

The 77-year-old lives with cardiovascular disease, which is the number one killer in the world. Each year, about 17.9 million people die from it. It’s also the number one killer of women and Black people in America. 

In Chisholm’s case, it appears to be hereditary. But health experts say 80% of cases are preventable.

“Your diet is everything,” said Dr. Shaun Smithson, who specializes in interventional cardiovascular disease and is Chisholm’s doctor. “Everyone knows that diet (is important), most people indulge in the United States.”

But for some one million South Floridians, finding healthy food isn’t easy. According Isis Zambrana, board president of the American Heart Association of South Florida, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area has the highest number of people living in food deserts in the state.

“Food insecurity can adversely impact heart, stroke risk factors, high blood pressure, diabetes and the impact is disproportionately  higher among racial and ethnic groups,” Zambrana said. 

The Liberty City section of Miami is 94.7% Black, and 27% of the people living there live in poverty. The area around Northwest 60th Street and Northwest 18th Avenue is considered a food desert, which is an area without a fully stocked grocery store or healthy food options within a mile radius.

Asha Walker, founder of the non-profit called Health in the Hood, is trying to change that.

“Health in the Hood in short is the answer to food justice,” Walker said. “We build vegetable gardens in food deserts across South Florida.”

Since 2013, Health in the Hood has built nine urban farms in food deserts across South Florida.

“In these neighborhoods, you have access to a lot of processed unhealthy food, and not any kind of leafy greens that are readily available,” says Walker. “It’s a huge problem not only in South Florida, but across the country. Food deserts are not specific to South Florida.”

But just as progress was being made, the pandemic has compounded the problem.

“We’ve already seen that the pandemic has reversed improvements that have occurred over past decades,” says Zambrana.

As a result, more and more people have found themselves in food distribution lines during the pandemic, like Opa Locka resident Chris Banks.

“Stuff like this (food distribution) really helps,” says Banks. “Let’s hope it (the pandemic) ends in another month, so we can get back to normality.”

But normality will take a community effort on several fronts. Health experts say education is key in reducing cardiovascular disease, because it's crucial for people to understand the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise.

The American Heart Association also says they are working to eliminate social factors to poor health, structural racism and threats to rural health.

“When policy makers are thinking about cardiovascular health in communities, they need to consider things like food insecurity as well as the overall social economic wellbeing of the community,” Zambrana said.

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