What Are Food Deserts?

For decades, health officials have encouraged families to eat more nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables and avoid junk or processed foods like chips and fast food. But for many families in the United States, living in a food desert makes that difficult.

Food deserts are areas where residents do not have access to stores that sell affordable healthy food options. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 13.5 million people in the United States live in them.

These communities are a serious environmental health issue that can impact the lives of families for generations.

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 a bulk of 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 with limited shelf space for healthy food options. This makes finding nutritious foods very difficult for many families.

How close a person or family lives to a store where healthy foods are sold is only one of many factors that influences their ability to eat healthy. Other socioeconomic factors can also keep people from consuming healthy food options.

For example:

  • Access to transportation: For example, two neighbors might each live in a food desert. But while one neighbor has a car, the other relies on public transportation. The neighbor who is able to drive will likely have more options when it comes to groceries than the other person.
  • Budget: Even if healthier food options were more convenient to get, low-income individuals get priced out of high-quality health foods. After all, $50 worth of boxed meals and frozen dinners can often last a family longer than $50 worth of fresh vegetables and lean meats.
  • Employment: Boxed meals and frozen dinners are also quicker and easier to prepare. This matters a lot when parents work multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet.

Defining Characteristics

Pinning down what constitutes a food desert can be challenging. For its part, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared a few parameters that help classify whether an area can be considered one.

According to these parameters, a community is defined as a food desert if:

  • The area has a poverty rate of at least 20%
  • In urban areas, at least 33% of the population live more than one mile from the nearest grocery store
  • In rural areas, at least 33% of the population live more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store

The department also looked at other factors beyond location, such as low-income status and access to a vehicle or public transportation.

Locations

When most public health officials talk about food deserts, they’re often referring to inner cities where higher property costs can scare away many potential grocers.

But while roughly 82% of food deserts are in urban areas, rural communities aren’t exactly exempt.

According to Feeding America, in 2019, 13.3% of all people in rural areas were living below the poverty line, compared to 10% of people living in urban areas. That year, rural counties made up approximately 91% of American communities facing food insecurity.

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. According to a USDA study, moderate and high-income areas had more than 24,000 large grocery stores and supermarkets in 2015, while low-income census tracts had just 19,700. 

In fact, half of all low-income zip codes (that is, where the median income is under $25,000) qualify as food deserts.

Who Lives There

Low-income individuals, especially those without access to a car or who live in remote rural areas, often have the hardest time getting healthy foods. For them, finding healthy food means driving further to get them.

That is, of course, if driving is even an option. More than two million households located in food deserts don't have a vehicle, according to the USDA.

Residents of urban food deserts also pay more for groceries than families in the suburbs. By one estimate, they pay up to 37% more for the same exact products, typically because of higher operating and shipping costs inside the city.

Lower-income families put a larger percentage of their paychecks toward buying groceries. Living in a food desert means that paychecks won't stretch nearly as far as they would in areas where fresh, healthy foods are more accessible. 

When faced with those obstacles, it's no surprise that some families opt for the less-healthy—but much more affordable—options available to them.

Relative to other areas, food deserts are also 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 as being food insecure. Food insecurity, in which a household cannot get food in socially acceptable ways, 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. Making the trip to a big store or having groceries delivered may still be an option for those who have the means and opportunity to do so.

While food insecurity is more common in food deserts, 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 make them unaffordable to the food-insecure person.

Impact on Health

Obesity is the biggest health concern linked to food deserts is. And that makes sense, given that people who can’t easily access healthy foods tend to eat less healthily than people who can. Unhealthy eating habits lead to weight gain, and that, in turn, leads to obesity.

Being significantly overweight or obese increases a person’s risk for all kinds of health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Being obese during pregnancy can also up your chances of gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy), preeclampsia, birth defects, and miscarriage.

Excessive weight may even increase your risk of cancer. One study estimated that 481,000 new cases of cancer worldwide in 2012 were due to being overweight or obese.

The impact of obesity has the potential to last for generations, as kids of obese parents are more likely to become obese themselves.

Beyond obesity, 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.

Decades of nutrition research have found that unhealthy eating habits can have severe, and sometimes lifelong consequences.

Not getting enough foods that are rich in things like iron, vitamin A, or iodine has been linked to cognitive difficulties, weaker immune systems, and stunted growth.

It's not just child nutrition that matters, either. 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.

Another concern about food deserts is the risk posed to those with dietary restrictions and food allergies. An estimated 15 million people in the United States have a food allergy (some more than one), many of which can be life threatening.

Roughly 30,000 people a year require emergency medical treatment because they ate or drank something they were allergic to. Not being able to buy food that they know is safe can force people to take risks in order to feed themselves and their families.

That said, while studies have found significant links between a community's lack of supermarkets to health issues like obesity, research also shows that that relationship might be a whole lot more complicated than what was previously thought.

Studies have concluded that socioeconomic status might even play a more important role in nutritional outcomes than proximity to a grocery store.

What Can Be Done?

Food deserts have been on the radar at public health departments for a while now. 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 entice supermarkets and other healthy food retailers to set up shop

But making affordable healthy food easier to access is only part of the solution. By one estimate, providing low-income neighborhoods with access to higher quality food would only drop nutritional inequality by 9%.

While opening up supermarkets in former food deserts might bring healthier food options to the neighborhood, it doesn’t magically change food-buying habits. Neither does families moving to a place where healthy eating is the norm and there are plenty of healthy foods nearby.

Families get into a groove of what they like to eat and how much they spend on groceries. As many parents can attest, it takes a while to find a menu of things the whole family can enjoy. Disrupting that routine can take a whole lot more than building a store nearby.

Helping communities gain access to more affordable healthy food options is an important step, but there must also be efforts 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.

In order to bring about any meaningful change, nutrition education should be created with these traditions in mind, being careful to respect deeply rooted cultural norms found in every community.

Efforts to combat food deserts and food insecurity should also be practical for the communities involved. Encouraging families to participate in a community garden, for example, might not be feasible in an area where many of the adults work multiple jobs with little free time to pitch in.

Food Deserts vs. Food Swamps

In light of what is now known about food deserts, some researchers investigating nutritional gaps are their shifting focus to what have been dubbed "food swamps." These areas don't just lack grocery stores. They are also crammed full of fast food places and convenience stores.

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

This has encouraged many health agencies to take a different approach to food deserts and swamps by finding ways to make healthy choices easier and more appealing.

Instead of trying to attract grocery stores, some cities have tried to urge corner stores and gas stations to spend more shelf space on affordable, fresh produce.

Others have set up mobile farmers' markets that resemble food trucks to drive out to low-access areas so that residents don't have to go out of their way to buy healthy food.

Summary

Food deserts are communities where a large percent of residents have no access to fresh and healthy foods. Socioeconomics play a major role both in the lack of available healthy foods and residents' purchasing habits and abilities.

Millions of Americans live in food deserts, making it difficult for them to fill their stomachs with vital nutrients, and putting them at a greater risk for such health complications as 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 and, therefore, will likely need a unique 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, but it is essential to maintaining and improving the health of communities for generations to come.

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