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What Are Food Deserts? – Verywell Health

7 minutes, 24 seconds Read

“Food deserts” are residential areas with poor access to healthy, affordable food. Most families understand the importance of eating nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods like chips and fast food. But when you live in a food desert, these goals are hard to achieve.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are a serious public health concern. More than 13.5 million people in the United States live in areas that meet the definition of a food desert, many of whom are nutritionally deprived.

This article takes a closer look at what food deserts are, who is affected, and the health impact they have on individuals and communities. It also explains what can be done to expand access to healthy foods in areas designated as food deserts.

Elvis Batiz​ / Flickr

What Makes an Area a Food Desert?

Food deserts are generally lower-income communities that lack access to nutritious, affordable food. Instead of grocery stores or farmers’ markets, these areas have corner stores or gas stations with limited shelf space for anything other than packaged foods that are convenient and shelf-stable. More often than not, these foods are unhealthy.

A community is designated as a food desert if:

  • The poverty rate is at least 20%.
  • At least 33% of the urban population lives more than 1 mile from the nearest grocery store.
  • At least 33% of the rural population lives more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store.

By Location

There are more food deserts in urban communities than in rural communities. Even so, a larger proportion of people living in rural communities are affected due to higher rates of poverty.

According to the USDA, there are roughly 46% more food deserts in urban areas than in rural areas. However, 34% of people living in rural areas are affected by food deserts compared to 23% living in urban centers.

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 food deserts compared to higher-income states like Oregon or New Hampshire.

By Income and Race

Lower-income areas are hit hardest by food deserts. While moderate- and high-income areas have more than 24,000 large grocery stores and supermarkets, low-income areas have well under 20,000 despite often a higher population density.

In terms of income, roughly 55% of all zip codes where the median household income is under $25,000 qualify as food deserts. That is more than double the percentage of food desert zip codes of the country as a whole (24%).

Whereas more White people live in non-food deserts than in food deserts, more minorities live in food deserts than in non-food deserts. Among Black and Hispanic urban dwellers, more than half (53%) live in a food desert.

This largely mirrors poverty rates in the United States in which the poverty rate among Black and Hispanic people is roughly 50% higher than the rate among White people.

Other Socioeconomic Factors

How close you live to a store is only one of the factors that influence your ability to eat healthily. Other socioeconomic factors affecting people in food deserts include:

  • Lack of transportation: Around two million households located in food deserts don’t have a vehicle which makes it difficult 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 have a car.
  • Higher prices: People who live in urban food deserts have to rely on convenience stores, corner shops, and gas stations where prices are significantly higher than in supermarkets and large retail grocery chains.
  • Disposable income: Lower-income families spend a larger percentage of their income on groceries. Living in a food desert means that paychecks don’t stretch as far as they do in areas where fresh, healthy foods are more accessible. 
  • “Food swamps”: This is an informal term used to describe areas where unhealthy food retailers, like fast food chains, outpace healthier alternatives. A 2020 study reported that 38% more Black people perceived themselves to be living in a food swamp compared to White people.
  • Dietary habits: A historical lack of access to nutritious foods affects eating habits. When weaned on fast foods and convenient foods, people are often reluctant to suddenly change their eating habits. Therefore, bringing supermarkets into neighborhoods is only part of the solution.

Who Is Affected by Food Deserts?

According to data released by the USDA, relative to other areas, food deserts are more likely to have:

  • Higher concentrations of minorities
  • Higher rates of vacant homes
  • Higher rates of unemployment
  • Lower levels of education

It should be noted that living in a food desert isn’t the same thing as being food insecure. Food insecurity occurs when families skip meals or have periods of hunger because they cannot afford to buy food. Food insecurity often happens within food deserts, but it can occur outside of them too.

Impact of Food Deserts on Health

Living in a food desert doesn’t mean that you will invariably be nutritionally deprived. Driving distances to a big store or having groceries delivered are options if you have the means.

With that said, living in a food desert is associated with a higher risk of poor nutrition, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This, in turn, increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other potentially serious health concerns.

Obesity

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

People with obesity also have a greater risk of complications during pregnancy, including:

Excessive weight may even increase your risk of cancer. One study in Lancet Oncology estimated that in 2012 alone, 481,000 new cases of cancer were due to being overweight or having obesity.

The impact of obesity can last for generations. Kids of parents with obesity are more likely to have obesity themselves.

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:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Impaired healing
  • Delayed growth and development

Babies born to females who don’t get enough folate during the early stages of pregnancy have a higher risk of being born with birth defects like spinal bifida. Folate is found in fresh fruits, whole grains, and leafy vegetables.

Food deserts can also harm people with dietary restrictions. Convenience foods are often high-glycemic and rich in simple carbohydrates that not only increase the risk of diabetes but also make the disease harder to control.

This accounts in large part for why the rate of type 2 diabetes in Black people is 60% higher than in White people and why the risk of death from diabetes is twice as high among Black people compared to White people.

What Can Be Done About Food Deserts?

Many communities have already begun taking action to bring produce and other healthy foods to food deserts. For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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
  • Providing tax incentives to attract supermarkets and other healthy food retailers

Making affordable, healthy food easier to access is only part of the solution. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, providing low-income neighborhoods access to higher-quality food would only drop nutritional inequality by around 9%. This is because access to healthier food won’t necessarily change food-buying habits.

The simple fact is that families and communities develop eating habits, good and bad, that can become deeply ingrained within their culture. For meaningful change to occur, nutrition education needs to be created with these traditions in mind. Educators also need to respect deeply rooted cultural norms.

Solutions should also be practical and tailored to the realities of the community. In places where many adults work multiple jobs, it might be too much to ask them to participate in a community garden. Resources may therefore need to be redirected to improve transportation.

Every community has its own solutions. Instead of trying to attract grocery stores, some cities have urged corner stores and gas stations to devote more shelf space for fresh produce. Others have set up mobile farmers’ markets resembling food trucks that can drive to low-access areas. Efforts like these not only improve access to healthy foods but can also change attitudes.

Summary

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.

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