What Are Food Deserts?

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.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are a serious environmental health issue. More than 13.5 million people in the United States live in one.

This article takes a closer look at what food deserts are, who is impacted by them, the health effects they have, and what can be done to expand access to healthy foods.

A man in an aisle at the market
Elvis Batiz​ / Flickr

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.

Defining Characteristics

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.

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 condtions.


Unhealthy eating habits can lead to weight gain and obesity. Being significantly overweight or obese increases a person’s risk for conditions such as:

People who are obese during pregnancy also have a greater risk of complications like:

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.

Nutritional Deficiency

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:

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 Can Be Done?

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 vs. Food Swamps

Some researchers investigating nutritional gaps are shifting focus from food deserts to "food swamps." These areas don't just lack grocery stores. They are also full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Studies have shown that food swamps are linked to a poorer diet and higher obesity rates than food deserts. That's because the presence of convenient but unhealthy meal options often cancels out any benefits adding grocery stores might bring.

This is why many health agencies take a different approach by finding ways to make healthy choices easier and more appealing. Instead of trying to attract grocery stores, some cities have urged corner stores and gas stations to use more shelf space for affordable, fresh produce.

Others have set up mobile farmers' markets that resemble food trucks. These trucks can drive out to low-access areas so residents don't have to travel to buy healthy food.


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.

A Word From Verywell

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.

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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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By Robyn Correll, MPH
Robyn Correll, MPH holds a master of public health degree and has over a decade of experience working in the prevention of infectious diseases.