Food deserts: Definition, effects, and solutions

Food deserts are regions where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food. This may be due to having a low income or having to travel farther to find healthy food options.

Without access to healthy foods, people living in food deserts may be at higher risk of diet-related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and micro-nutrient deficiencies.

Several government bodies are now funding projects to prevent areas from becoming food deserts and to improve people’s access to food in existing food deserts.

Keep reading to learn more about food deserts and how they impact health.

Food deserts are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy foods. This may be due to having a limited income or living far away from sources of healthy and affordable food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.

In order to qualify as a food desert, an area must also meet certain other criteria.

In urban areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 1 mile from the nearest large grocery store. In rural areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store.

The USDA identified around 6,500 food deserts between 2000 and 2006. Experts estimate that around 23.5 million people in the US live in low income areas that are farther than 1 mile to the nearest large grocery store. Of these people, 11.5 million have low incomes.

A more recent studies shows mixed results. On the one hand, while the overall share of Americans living in areas with limited access to a supermarket declined from 6.8% to 5.6% from 2010 to 2016, the percentage of low-income communities increased by 5%.

As a result, the combined number of low-income and low-access communities increased slightly.

A 2012 USDA report on food deserts suggests that regions with the following characteristics are more likely to become food deserts:

  • very large or very sparse populations
  • low income
  • high levels of unemployment
  • inadequate access to transportation
  • a low number of food retailers providing fresh produce at affordable prices

The report also notes that rural areas located in the West, Midwest, and South of the US are much more likely to be food deserts than rural areas located in the Northeast. This may be because rural areas in the Northeast tend to be closer to urban areas containing grocery stores.

According to the report, rural areas with growing populations may have a lower risk of becoming food deserts.

Experts have not yet reached an agreement regarding the characteristics of the populations that live within food deserts.

According to the 2012 USDA report, some research suggests that neighborhoods consisting primarily of low income minority ethnic groups have limited access to supermarkets compared with wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

The review also cites research suggesting that some low income neighborhoods have a greater number of grocery stores and live closer to these stores than wealthier people. In such cases, the issue may be the affordability of the foods rather than their proximity.

In rural areas, the most important predictor of food access is lack of transportation. This means that people who do not have their own bicycle or vehicle and lack access to public transportation are more likely to lack access to healthy foods.

Since researchers have not reached a consensus on the characteristics of the populations affected by food deserts, further investigations are necessary. Such investigations may help policymakers identify areas at risk of becoming food deserts so that they can implement better access to healthy foods.

Maintaining a healthy diet involves:

According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americansa healthy diet should include the following foods:

  • a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fat-free or low fat dairy
  • protein-rich foods, including:
    • seafood
    • lean meats and poultry
    • eggs
    • legumes
    • nuts and seeds
    • soy products
  • healthy oils

People living in food deserts may have limited access to supermarkets and other food retailers offering healthy and affordable foods. Even when convenience stores and small grocers stock healthy foods, they are often too expensive for people with a low income to afford.

People living in food deserts may therefore be more reliant on food retailers or fast food restaurants offering a more affordable but limited variety of foods.

The lack of access to healthy foods and easy access to fast foods may be linked to poor diets that are high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats. This can contribute to diet-related conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

A lack of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and unprocessed meats can lead to deficiencies in zinc and vitamins A, B1, and C in pregnant individuals. Pregnant people are particularly at risk for deficiencies that are exacerbated by food deserts.

Some of the health effects of living in a food desert include:

  • a higher incidence of obesity
  • increased prevalence of diabetes
  • other weight-related conditions, especially in children
  • other conditions caused by long term nutritional deficiency

Many food deserts also provide limited or unaffordable healthcare services. This contributes to negative health outcomes for people living in these areas.

People use a number of terms to describe a population’s access to food. The sections below outline some other examples.

Food swamps

A food swamp is a region that provides adequate access to healthy and affordable food, as well as an overabundance of less healthy food options.

In Canadian urban areas, food swamps are more common than food deserts.

Food mirage

A food mirage describes an area where people live close to grocery stores offering a variety of healthy foods but cannot afford those foods.

Because of this, people must travel farther to find healthy foods that are within their budget.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity refers to limited or insecure access to food because of financial constraints. Families and people with low incomes may not have enough money to afford healthful foods.

The term “food deserts” has come under fire from some researchers and advocates, who criticized the term for:

  • Negative connotations: The term focuses on what a community lacks and implies a barren area rather than a place where people are struggling.
  • Using a term for a natural occurrence: A desert is a natural phenomenon rather than a social and economic condition, and using the word “desert” doesn’t fully describe the underlying causes of inequality and lack of access.
  • Overemphasis on distance: Some have criticized the term for only focusing on the distance to supermarkets without considering other possible solutions such as mobility, income, or education, as well as incentives to expand farmers’ markets or other alternative food sources.

Different terms have been offered, such as “food apartheid” or “supermarket redlining,” which addresses the issue of neighborhood access in a more pointed way. Baltimore City uses the term Healthy Food Priority Areas or HFPAs.

Policymakers are actively looking for solutions to improve access to healthy foods in food deserts throughout the US.

The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program funds sustainable food projects that help low income communities gain access to nutritious and culturally acceptable diets.

These projects also address broader economic, social, and environmental issues surrounding the food system. Some of the issues that the Community Food Projects aims to address include:

  • increasing the availability of healthy, locally sourced foods through:
    • affordable grocery stores
    • affordable markets
    • backyards and community gardens
    • food assistance programs
    • food buying clubs
  • encouraging healthful dietary habits by providing education and training on food production, preparation, and nutrition
  • enrolling eligible residents into government nutrition programs
  • increasing access to local farmers markets
  • promoting safe and fair farm worker conditions
  • supporting sustainable agricultural practices that protect the air, water, soil, and habitats
  • supporting food industry entrepreneurs
  • celebrating and honoring diverse food cultures
  • encouraging residents to participate in food system planning
  • giving residents a say on food-related decisions that people make in government

Food deserts are areas where people are unable to gain access to healthy foods. They are a major issue affecting millions of people in the US and around the globe.

Experts suggest that living in a food desert may put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related conditions, as well as a range of nutritional deficiencies.

Community Food Projects are working to improve food systems in food deserts. Their overall aim is to help increase residents’ access to healthy foods.