How to Manage Diabetes If You Live in a Food Desert

Woman Opening Parcel With Meal Kit

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Key Takeaways

  • Living in a food desert and not having reliable access to fresh food can make it challenging to manage diabetes.
  • Some people who live in food deserts also face food insecurity, which is a risk factor for diabetes.
  • Certain food banks offer diabetes-friendly boxes to help people access the nutritious foods they need to manage their condition.

It can be challenging for people to manage diabetes if they live in a food desert where access to fresh produce is limited. A low or inconsistent supply of fresh, nutritious foods might perpetuate food insecurity in a community, making it even harder for people with diabetes.

Whether people live in a food desert or not, research has shown that individuals who face food insecurity are two to three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with consistent access to food.

“Food choices and lack of food directly impact a person with diabetes,” Alison Massey, MS, RD, CDCES, a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists, told Verywell in an email.

In a food desert, processed foods, sweetened beverages, and refined grains are often some of the only available options—all of which contribute to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

For those living in a food-insecure household, they could be prone to overeating when food is available, according to Enza Gucciardi, PhD, a professor in the School of Nutrition at Toronto Metropolitan University. This can cause a frequent spike in blood sugar levels, which can lead to complications like diabetic eye disease or nerve damage.

Living in a food desert or experiencing food insecurity can also take a toll on mental health.

“The stress that comes along with that also can impact someone’s health,” Gucciardi said. Research has shown that stress can raise blood sugar levels and worsen diabetes complications.

Food Assistance Programs for Diabetes Care

For those with limited access to nutritious food because of income restraints, government-funded programs like SNAP and WIC can help. Some online grocery stores and farmers markets now accept SNAP benefits so that recipients are encouraged to buy more fresh produce and healthy foods.

“All individuals deserve access to healthy food and affordable resources that they need to live and have the best possible quality of life with diabetes,” Massey said.

Some food assistance programs, like The Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), have recognized the need to provide additional resources for people managing both food insecurity and diabetes.

“Last year, we distributed over 5,000 diabetes-friendly food boxes, to almost 500 clients who were enrolled at the 10 sites,” Michelle Gross, RD, MS, the director of community nutrition at CFBNJ, told Verywell.

CFBNJ, in partnership with Summit Health Cares, runs a Diabetes Initiative which provides health screenings, diabetes-friendly meals, and nutrition education to people with diabetes who are already receiving meals from food banks.

“In addition to coming to the pantry to get their regular pantry items, they would also get this special shelf-stable food box for diabetes,” Gross said.

The diabetes-friendly box includes a variety of items like brown rice, canned salmon, dried navy beans, and olive oil along with a recipe booklet developed by a certified diabetes educator. Recipients also receive a tailored produce box with leafy greens, berries, and other fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

Everyone who receives these diabetes-friendly food boxes can also attend SNAP nutrition classes and monthly diabetes management presentations from pharmacists and other healthcare providers.

“The point is to be really meeting folks where they are and bringing the resources to them,” Gross said.

Programs like CFBNJ’s Diabetes Initiative can improve outcomes for participants. While Gross said this is not a replacement for medical care, she has seen people lose weight and lower their A1C while enrolled in the program.

“It might not be a complete solution, but it is giving people more opportunities to access care and access nutritious food,” she said.

How Can Healthcare Providers Help?

To connect with community programs like CFBNJ’s Diabetes Initiative, individuals sometimes have to be referred by a healthcare provider. However, people may not always want to disclose that they are struggling to buy food.

Gucciardi said that healthcare providers should work to destigmatize food insecurity, especially since this problem has become more rampant between the pandemic and inflation. Her research supports implementing food insecurity screening tools during primary care visits.

“The information that we got from our research is that they feel relief to be able to discuss these challenges with the care provider, so then they can get support,” she said.

These screenings can help healthcare providers understand a patient's food security status so they can create appropriate and individualized diabetes management plans.

“We have to work with the foods that they normally can access and are available to them,” she said.

Healthcare providers may also be able to refer people with diabetes to community programs at a food bank or a local food-is-medicine organization. This is still an emerging concept in the United States, but organizations like MANNA in Philadelphia and God’s Love We Deliver in New York have already been delivering medically tailored meals for people with chronic conditions.

What This Means For You

If you or a loved one are experiencing hunger, you can find your nearest food bank on the Feeding America website. Resources are also available on their website to help determine your eligibility for SNAP or WIC resources.

Correction - November 29, 2022: This article was updated to reflect the name change from Summit Medical Group Foundation to Summit Health Cares.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. British Diabetic Association. Stress and diabetes.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Stores accepting SNAP online.

  4. Vitale M, Dorado L, Pais V, Sidani S, Gucciardi E. Food insecurity screening among families of children with diabetesDiabetes Spectr. 2019;32(4):338-348. doi:10.2337/ds18-0083