Food deserts are residential areas with poor access to affordable, healthy food. Most families understand the importance of eating nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods like chips and fast food. When you live in a food desert, however, this can be hard to do.
About 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, of households in the continental U.S. live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. For these households, lack of transportation poses a likely barrier to accessing affordable and nutritious food.
What Is a Food Desert?
A food desert is an area where it is hard for people to access fresh, healthy and affordable produce. In the United States, it is typically an urban area marked by socioeconomic disadvantage, resulting from a long history of discriminatory policies against Black families and households.
What Makes an Area a Food Desert?
Food deserts are places where most residents don’t have access to affordable, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Instead of grocery stores or farmers’ markets, these areas often have corner stores and gas stations. These stores have limited shelf space for healthy food options, which makes finding nutritious foods very difficult for many families.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a community as a food desert if:
- The area has a poverty rate of at least 20%
- In urban areas, at least 33% of the population lives more than 1 mile from the nearest grocery store
- In rural areas, at least 33% of the population lives more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store
Roughly 82% of food deserts are in urban areas, but rural areas can also have food deserts. In 2019, 13.3% of people in rural areas were living below the poverty line. That’s compared to 10% of people living in urban areas. That year, 91% of American communities facing food insecurity were in rural counties.
Food deserts exist all over the country, but they are more common in the South and Midwest. Lower-income states like Louisiana or Mississippi have a much higher percentage of residents lacking access to healthy food, compared to states like Oregon or New Hampshire.
Lower-income areas are typically the hardest hit by food deserts. In 2015, moderate and high-income areas had more than 24,000 large grocery stores and supermarkets, but low-income areas had just 19,700. In fact, half of all zip codes where the median income is under $25,000 qualify as food deserts.
Even when healthier food options are easy to get, low-income individuals get priced out of high-quality health foods. Dollar for dollar, boxed meals and frozen dinners are cheaper and often last longer than fresh vegetables and lean meats.
Other Socioeconomic Factors
How close you live to a store that carries healthy foods is only one of many factors that influences your ability to eat healthy. Other socioeconomic factors can also keep people from consuming healthy food options, such as:
- Access to transportation: Around two million households located in food deserts don’t have a vehicle, which makes it challenging to get to a grocery store. Similarly, people who live in very remote areas may be unable to travel long distances to get food even if they do have a car.
- Employment: Boxed meals and frozen dinners are quicker and easier to prepare. This matters a lot when parents work multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet.
- Higher prices: Residents of urban food deserts pay up to 37% more than families in the suburbs, often for the exact same products. This is due to higher operating and shipping costs inside the city.
When faced with those obstacles, it’s no surprise that some families opt for more affordable but less healthy options.
Lower-income families spend a larger percentage of their income on groceries. Living in a food desert means paychecks won’t stretch as far as they do in areas where fresh, healthy foods are more accessible.
Who Is Affected?
Relative to other areas, food deserts are more likely to have:
- Higher concentrations of minority residents
- Higher rates of vacant homes
- Higher unemployment rates
- Lower levels of education among residents
- Smaller populations
It should be noted that living in a food desert isn’t the same thing as being food insecure. Food insecurity is when families skip meals or have periods of hunger because they lack the resources to obtain food. Food insecurity often occurs within food deserts, but it can happen outside of them too.
Not everyone who lives in a food desert lacks access to healthy foods. Driving to a big store or having groceries delivered may still be an option for those who have the means and opportunity.
Food insecurity is more common in food deserts, but it isn’t limited to them. A person living outside of a food desert may also lack access to healthy foods and fresh produce. In some cases, such foods might be available, but high prices may make them unaffordable.
What Is the Difference Between Food Deserts and Food Swamps?
A food desert refers to an area that lacks access to nutritious foods, meaning that there is no grocery store nearby selling affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. A food swamp refers to an area that has too many food options that are less healthy.
Examples of such unhealthy food options include fast-food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald’s, gas station convenience stores, drugstores, and “junk” food vendors that sell mostly sweet and salty, highly processed drinks and snacks.
How Are Food Deserts Identified?
To identify food deserts, researchers look at how far the people in a neighborhood live from a supermarket or grocery store, the income of the families living in the area, as well as other resources like access to transportation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped using the term “food desert” in 2013, and instead now looks at census tracts that are both low-income and have low supermarket access. Census tracts are measured for both a concentration of “low-income” families and their distance from food stores.
The food stores included are supermarkets, supercenters and large grocery stores, while smaller grocery stores, dollar stores, drugstores, military commissaries and warehouse club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are excluded. Also not counted in the USDA criteria are farmers’ markets, food banks or pantries, and community gardens.
The Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defined food deserts as an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” However, the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported in 2021 that “food desert” is not defined in law, and that some community advocates prefer to use alternative terms to describe the phenomena.
The Baltimore City government uses the term Healthy Food Priority Areas (HFPAs). Other terms used to describe inequitable food access include “supermarket redlining,” “food apartheid,” “food swamp,” “food hinterland,” and “food mirage.” Each of these terms signals a different approach to understanding areas with limited access to healthy food, separate from the USDA’s definition.
Impact on Health
People who can’t access healthy food tend to eat less healthily than people who can. This can lead to a number of serious health conditions.
Unhealthy eating habits can lead to weight gain and obesity. Being significantly overweight or obese increases a person’s risk for conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
People who are obese during pregnancy also have a greater risk of complications like:
- Gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy)
- Birth defects
Excessive weight may even increase your risk of cancer. One study estimated that in 2012 alone, 481,000 new cases of cancer were due to being overweight or obese. The impact of obesity can last for generations. Kids of obese parents are more likely to become obese themselves.
Unhealthy eating habits in the first few years of life can also significantly affect a child’s ability to grow. Brains and bodies develop quickly during early childhood, and to do that, they need key nutrients.
Unhealthy eating habits can have severe, and sometimes lifelong consequences. Deficiencies in important nutrients like iron, vitamin A, or iodine have been linked to health problems such as:
- Cognitive difficulties
- Weakened immune system
- Stunted growth
Babies born to women who don’t get enough folate in the early stages of pregnancy have a higher risk of being born with potentially serious birth defects. Folate is found in fresh fruits, whole grains, and leafy vegetables.
Food deserts can also harm people with dietary restrictions and food allergies. An estimated 15 million people in the United States have a food allergy, and some have more than one. Food allergies are often life-threatening.
Roughly 30,000 people a year require emergency care because they ate or drank something they were allergic to. Lack of access to safe food can force people to take risks in order to feed themselves and their families.
The relationship between health problems and food access is complicated. Studies suggest that socioeconomic status might even play a more important role in nutritional outcomes than proximity to a grocery store.
What Are the Possible Solutions For Food Deserts?
Proposed solutions to unequal food access are varied, but some are listed below.
Farmers’ Markets and Community Gardens
Outside of supermarkets, urban residents have turned otherwise unused spaces into community gardens and supported the development of farmers markets.
Agrihood is a term used to describe urban agriculture initiatives that unite multiple farms connected to each other for the purpose of feeding people in an urban neighborhood.
Meal Delivery, Food Trucks, and Ride Shares
Using mobile markets and online food delivery services can also help communities access food in urban neighborhoods.
Many communities have already begun taking action to bring produce and other healthy foods to food deserts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends several strategies to address and prevent food deserts, including:
- Building community gardens
- Establishing local farmers markets
- Improving public transportation from food deserts to established markets
- Tweaking local laws and tax codes to attract supermarkets and other healthy food retailers
Making affordable, healthy food easier to access is only part of the solution. By one estimate, giving low-income neighborhoods access to higher quality food would only drop nutritional inequality by 9%. This is because access to healthier food won’t necessarily change food-buying habits.
Families develop eating and spending habits, and it takes time to find things the whole family will enjoy. Changing a family’s eating habits involves more than just building a store nearby.
Helping communities gain access to more affordable, healthy food options is an important step. The next step is to change eating behaviors through expanded nutrition education.
Food is a deeply cultural and personal thing. Many families have beloved meals that give them comfort and make them feel at home. Food is also a big part of many religious celebrations and rituals.
For meaningful change to occur, nutrition education should be created with these traditions in mind. Educators should take care to respect the deeply rooted cultural norms found in each community.
Solutions should also be practical for the communities involved. In places where many adults work multiple jobs, for example, it might be too much to ask them to participate in a community garden.
Food deserts are communities where a large percentage of residents have no access to healthy foods. Socioeconomic factors play a major role in both the unavailability of healthy foods and residents’ purchasing habits.
Millions of Americans live in food deserts. This makes it difficult for them to get the right nutrients, which puts them at a greater risk for health complications like obesity, heart disease, and more.
The key to addressing both food deserts and food swamps is to acknowledge that every community is different. Each unique community will likely need a different combination of strategies.
Opening up a grocery store in every neighborhood sounds good in theory, but might be impractical in practice. Helping families find healthy, affordable, and practical meals will require innovative solutions. Success is essential to maintaining and improving the health of communities for generations to come.