Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. The reasons for this are complex but one particular challenge for many communities is a lack of access to healthy foods in areas sometimes called food deserts. Along with driving up healthcare costs, living in a food desert also diminishes people’s overall quality of life. Some racial groups experience a greater impact than others — especially in low-income neighborhoods where finding affordable and healthy food is extremely challenging. Rural areas also lack large grocery stores that stock healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Many residents of these communities areas rely on small convenience stores and fast food.
Where food deserts exist also has historic origins. In the U.S., supermarket redlining traces back to the first instances of this practice in the 1940s, when neighborhoods were color-coded by the federal Home Owners Land Corporation to indicate lending risk. Due to the impact of loan and mortgage restrictions in areas where Black people lived, redlining hindered wealth accumulation in a way that still persists today. The effects of redlining extended to influence where supermarkets decided to put their businesses, which has left a legacy of limited access to nutritious food in historically redlined neighborhoods.
Food Desert, Defined
A food desert is a community or region in which residents face barriers to accessing fresh, healthy and affordable food — especially fruits and vegetables. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially stopped using the term in 2013, the term “food desert” still implies a place in which there are no nearby grocery stores, with increasing reliance on fast food that makes it harder to maintain a healthy diet. Food deserts can be present in both urban and rural areas marked by geographical and socioeconomic disadvantage. In food deserts, the nearest grocery store is far from the home and residents often don’t have access to a car. Fast food restaurants and small corner stores are often the only nearby food option.
To identify food deserts, researchers look at how far the people in a neighborhood live from a supermarket or grocery store. They also consider the income of the families living in the area, as well as other resources like access to transportation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped using the term “food desert” in 2013. Instead, it now looks at census tracts that are both low-income and have low supermarket access. Researchers measure census tracts for both a concentration of “low-income” families and their distance from food stores. The food stores included are supermarkets, supercenters and large grocery stores. On the other hand, smaller grocery stores, dollar stores, drugstores, military commissaries and warehouse club stores are excluded. The USDA’s criteria does not account for farmers’ markets, food banks or community gardens.
Why Do Food Deserts Exist?
In the U.S., food deserts are a result of efforts to segregate U.S. cities into predominantly Black and predominantly white neighborhoods through federal urban planning and housing policies. However, there are many different causes of food deserts, summarized below.
In addition to the challenge of living far from a food store, families in so-called food deserts are also less likely to have reliable transportation.
Even when healthy food is available at local stores, it can remain inaccessible to low-income families. This is due to higher expense of maintaining diets rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy proteins and nuts.
Instead of being a natural occurrence, “food deserts” are actually a result of systemic racial inequality. In these areas, affordable groceries are hard to come by due to a long history of unfair policies and discriminatory practices. A study in BMC Nutrition shows that people of color nationwide spend much more time traveling to access healthy foods compared to white populations.
Urbanization and Land-Use Policies
In densely populated urban areas, limited space is available. Grocery stores, which typically require significant space, often find it cost-prohibitive to buy or rent real estate in these urban settings.
Where Are Food Deserts Located?
Food deserts exist across the United States, from large cities to rural towns — and they tend to most impact Black and brown communities. Rural areas in the West, Midwest and South have a high density of food deserts. However, the Northeast sees relatively fewer food deserts due to its more compact population distribution.
The USDA Economic Research Service defines low access to food stores in rural areas as living more than 10 or 20 miles away from the nearest food store. In 2015, 4.6 million people lived in rural census tracts defined as low-income and low-access. Meanwhile, in urban areas, the USDA Economic Research Service defines low access to food stores as living more than half a mile or a mile away from a food store. In 2015, 34.7 million people lived in urban census tracts defined as low-income and low-access.
How Many Americans Live in Food Deserts, and Where Do They Live?
The number of people living in food deserts depends on the definition of “food desert” being used. Existing estimates are rough due to the challenge of quantitatively measuring access to healthy food. The USDA estimated that in 2019 somewhere between 11 and 27 percent of the population lived in areas where there is a significant concentration of poverty and physical distance from a supermarket. Other research suggests that approximately 20 percent of Black households reside in food deserts.
Chicago is the third-most populous city in the United States, and home to over 500,000 residents living in food deserts. An additional 400,000 people also live in neighborhoods with limited access to grocery stores. This makes fast food a more convenient option. A recent study revealed a concerning gap in predominantly Black residential areas, where the closest grocery store is twice as far away as the nearest fast-food restaurant. This disparity highlights the unequal access to nutritious food options in the city.
The issue of food deserts is also pronounced in the rural Mississippi Delta region. According to the USDA, Mississippi has the highest percentage of its population living in low-income, low-access areas in the entire country. In these rural counties, the average distance to a supermarket is approximately one per 190 square miles. This scarcity of grocery stores severely limits the availability of fresh and healthy food options for the local population.
Yet another example — New York City. Despite being a bustling urban area, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers find themselves living in food deserts. Many residents rely on small corner stores, which tend to prioritize microwavable meals and junk food over fresh, healthy produce.
Finally, in rural New Mexico, approximately three out of every 10 residents live in a food desert. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this situation. Many grocery stores were temporarily shut down as the virus spread, and some never reopened. This has created even greater hardships for residents already facing limited access to fresh and affordable food.
Food Deserts Are a Public Health Threat
Though the cumulative impact of food deserts can be hard to untangle, there are some common concerns related to limited access to healthy and affordable foods.
Studies have considered living in a food desert to be a risk factor for having a “suboptimal diet” for older adults with limited independence and mobility. Consistently consuming foods rich in salt, sugar, carbs and unhealthy fats can raise the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Easy access to cheap and unhealthy processed foods plays a role, as smaller grocery stores and drugstores are often full of foods that are high in added sugars, hydrogenated fats, salt and calories.
More supermarkets is often put forward as a solution. In one 2020 study, researchers studied the impact of a new supermarket in a food desert. They assessed how it influenced food security, dietary quality and the BMI of local participants in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. The SNAP participants in the neighborhood with a new supermarket significantly reduced their intake of added sugars — and participants in that neighborhood also experienced a lower daily calorie intake from “a combination of solid fats, alcohol and added sugars.”
Yet the presence of a new supermarket does not always improve dietary health. And even though many public health experts argue for specific policies that would eliminate food deserts, researchers have found that consumers often continue to make unhealthy food choices even when healthier food choices are more widely available. Many experts argue that more is needed than just a supermarket. For instance, even when a few grocery stores are available in food deserts, the healthy foods they offer may be pricier than processed alternatives. Improving the patterns linked to food deserts requires addressing poverty and increasing consumer education, these critics say.
One group of urban food desert researchers found that how residents perceived their “nutrition environments and household food challenges” were also significant factors in the quality of their diets. This research lends support to efforts to lower the price of fresh produce for low-income households.
Deserts, Swamps and Food Insecurity
In contrast to food deserts, areas characterized as food swamps may have access to healthy food options like fruits and vegetables, yet what’s more critical is the proliferation of fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and vending machines that primarily offer junk food, sugary beverages and processed snacks.
People who lack consistent access to sufficient food for a healthy and active life are, by definition, food insecure. From not having enough money to buy sufficient food to skipping meals, food insecurity is a massive challenge for public health leaders in the U.S.
There are many different proposed solutions to unequal food access. These solutions often overlap with initiatives to increase food security, food sovereignty and dismantling systems of oppression.
One promising approach is educating people about food deserts, as taken on by Black farmers like Leah Penniman and Karen Washington. Rather than describe systemic injustice as a natural phenomenon, Penniman, Washington and others explain that we could better describe food deserts with terms like “food apartheid.”
Researchers in 2020 found that the SNAP program improved the quality of the diets of SNAP participants when combined with the introduction of a supermarket into a Pittsburgh neighborhood food desert. One potential policy intervention might be for the government to subsidize retailers to enter neighborhoods identified as lacking access to healthy food.
Outside of supermarkets, some community organizers turn otherwise unused spaces into community gardens as well as increased development of farmers’ markets, particularly in areas with high rates of food insecurity. “Agrihood” is a term used to describe urban agriculture initiatives that unite multiple farms for the purpose of feeding people in an urban neighborhood. Using mobile markets and online food delivery services can also help communities access food in urban neighborhoods.
The Bottom Line
Addressing food deserts is a challenging task and a subject of fierce debate among researchers. A path forward that seems to be emerging — acknowledging how this problem is deeply rooted in larger issues like income inequality and systemic racism, which are also deeply ingrained in our flawed food system.