Is It Finally Time to Retire the Term ‘Food Desert’?

food desert

The term “food desert” is said to have been first used in the early 1990s by a Scottish public housing resident. In the 2000s, the term “food desert” entered the lexicon of U.S. public health advocates, philanthropists, food retailers, and legislators, who helped introduce the term into the 2008 Farm Bill—the Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. The law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) to define the term in a report, though the definition was never incorporated into federal law. Eventually, the USDA would have a “food desert” map, but the term was removed in 2013 when the map was renamed the Food Access Research Atlas. 

The term “food desert” is an increasingly outdated one amongst food policy experts, particularly among advocates who have lived experiences in working-class and lower-income neighborhoods with limited access to grocery stores and supermarkets. A better term, according to U.S. food justice activists like Karen Washington, is “food apartheid.” Food apartheid describes the human-enforced nature of a phenomenon that disproportionately impacts Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color through the way food systems operate. Inherent to recognizing food apartheid is the naming of “race and anti-blackness as the root of systemic food and land oppression,” and a call for social change strategies that are “grounded in organizing and direct action,” wrote Beatriz Beckford for WhyHunger in 2015.

Advocates like Karen Washington are seeking to deepen the conversation about food system reform in this direction by examining how food is connected to social justice in all its aspects: race, geography, class, the environment, health, education, and even faith and economics, as she told Guernica in 2018. For Washingon and other front-line activists, focusing on “food deserts” diverts much-needed attention from deep-rooted causes of social inequalities, such as economic practices that fail to invest in the training of, and support for, residents of impoverished areas.

What Is a Food Desert?  

The USDA defined food deserts in 2011 as a census tract, or a part of a county with a typical population of about 4,000, where 1. many people were surviving on low incomes, and 2. at least 500 people or one-third of the population lived more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store. One measure for a census tract to qualify as low-income was that at least one-fifth of its residents were living at or below the poverty rate. 

In 2013, the USDA stopped using the term “food desert” and instead described such places as “low-income and low-access.” Despite not using the term, USDA reports continued to use proximity to a supermarket as a proxy for access to healthy foods. The rationale for studying food deserts has typically been their association with diet-related chronic diseases and health disparities.

What Is the Difference Between Food Deserts and Food Swamps?

A food swamp is referred to as a location where there are many fast food restaurants, and few grocery stores. Rather than focus on the lack of grocery stores, however, the term food swamp focuses on the abundance of unhealthy food options in a neighborhood.

Like the term “food desert,” the term “food swamp” is a metaphor that relies on the notion of a naturally occurring biome. Neither term reflects the manufactured conditions of neighborhoods where people live in poverty and with limited access to affordable, fresh foods. Instead, activists seeking to validate the experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people prefer to use language that highlights the self-determination of directly affected community members when discussing policies related to food access, poverty, and public health.

Why Do Food Deserts Exist?  

The absence of supermarkets in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods can be traced to increased car production, an urban housing shortage, and the development of suburban housing tracts in the 1960s, according to a CNBC report in August 2020. With the expansion of the U.S. interstate highway system in the 1950s, the number of supermarkets “more than doubled.” Simultaneously, anti-Black housing policies resulted in a phenomenon known as “white flight,” in which white families moved to the suburbs and excluded people of color from buying or renting houses in those neighborhoods. Supermarkets followed the white flight into the suburbs. In the 1980s, public and private financiers avoided investing in poorer, urban neighborhoods, while also relocating industrial jobs to rural areas and to other countries. 

Where Are Food Deserts Most Common?  

States with the highest rates of census tracts that were low-income and that had low access to grocery stores were concentrated in the South: Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, South Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma, according to a USDA analysis of 2015 data. The top 10 metropolitan areas with the highest proportion of such census tracts were also concentrated in the South and Southwest, with the exception of Muskegon, Michigan, which ranked sixth at 38 percent. 

How Many Food Deserts Are There in the U.S.?    

USDA analysts calculated that in 2015 there were 9,245 census tracts in the United States (12 percent) that met thresholds of both high poverty and low access to food stores, a common way to define food deserts. 

How Many Americans Live in Food Deserts?

In 2015, there were an estimated 39.4 million people living in census tracts where significant portions of the population lived in poverty and also lived far from a grocery store, USDA researchers reported in 2019.

What Are the Impacts of Food Deserts? 

When full-service grocery store owners decide that it is not viable to do business in an impoverished neighborhood, residents face increased transportation barriers to access the produce they were selling. When supermarket owners divest from neighborhoods, residents left with reduced retail access to fresh fruits and vegetables may instead rely on convenience stores that primarily stock highly processed foods with low nutritional value. 

Food Desert Facts

  • The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is a federal program established through the 2014 Farm Bill that funds supermarket projects in low-income neighborhoods.
  • In February 2021, Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced bills (H.R. 1313, S. 203) to subsidize the construction of supermarkets and food banks and the operation of temporary food providers (e.g. mobile markets, farmers markets) in food deserts.

What Are the Possible Solutions For Food Deserts?  

One kind of solution to “food deserts” is to stop using the term, and to reframe the problem as “food apartheid.” There are several problems with using the word “food desert,” as Malik Yakini explains in a video for the 2020 Center for Nutrition Studies. A desert is a vibrant ecosystem, but the term “food desert” implies the opposite by focusing on a deficit of food retail stores in a community. Instead, Yakini promotes a definition of “food apartheid” by Dara Cooper, that describes the “systematic destruction of Black self-determination to control our food,” predatory marketing practices, and a “discriminatory, corporate-controlled food system.”

Crystal Forman is a wellness educator of Holistic Wellness and Health, a partner to Baltimore’s first AgriHood—a major urban farm program and marketplace, and an active member of the Encompass Movement’s Global Majority Caucus. For Forman, undoing the inequities resulting from food apartheid means policymakers seeking “community input and community control in growing, sourcing and selling healthy food. This requires land sovereignty and space to grow and sell nutritious food.” Solutions that she advocates to increase food security and access to nutritious food include community-run farmers’ markets and stores.

Access to food as a policy issue originated in the 1970s in the study of developing countries, where famines occurred despite the plentitude of food made possible through the Green Revolution. The economist Amartya Sen played a key role in then framing the issue of access to food as one in which wealthy countries controlled the distribution of food to people in poorer countries. While heralded for its technological achievements in the mass production of food, the Green Revolution also stamped industrial agricultural practices such as monocropping, pesticides, and fertilizers into food systems worldwide. 

Confirming the idea that food access is related to broad and highly political questions, a summary of research literature has found that interventions reliant on supermarket presence to improve eating patterns are ineffective at improving public health. The author, Nathan Rosenberg, has instead suggested bigger-picture, anti-poverty solutions to “food insecurity and diet-related health disparities”: raising the minimum wage, repealing anti-union laws, enacting paid sick leave, and strengthening social program benefits for people outside of the paid workforce, such as young people, older people, and disabled people. Policymakers could also increase benefits for people in programs such as food stamps (SNAP) and expand efforts to make school lunch and breakfast programs free.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A food desert is a low-income neighborhood where there are no supermarkets or grocery stores, and the difficulty of purchasing affordable, fresh produce and healthy foods often means these are less desirable places to live. This lack of a supermarket is also one signal of a problem that can be productively framed a different way—what Beatriz Beckford has described as “a system of food apartheid in black and brown communities across the country like the Bronx, NY, Jackson, MS, and Baltimore, MD, where politically sanctioned redlining restricts access to healthy food.” Community gardens and fresh produce programs, led by low-income communities of color, are some immediate solutions to allow people increased access to affordable, healthy food. Finally, increasing access to healthy food is a multi-issue concern that bridges public health, food access, and other social justice movements, and involves undoing inequities stemming from colonization, racism, and other systemic oppressions.