What are food deserts? You might’ve heard the term on the news, or seen it mentioned in your local newspaper, without really understanding what they are. You might even be living in one yourself and not even realize it.

What is a food desert?

A 2012 study defined food deserts as low-income communities that have very little access to healthy and affordable food. They often affect Communities of Color and have inadequate public transport.

Think about where you’re able to do your weekly food shopping. Do you have a supermarket or grocery store within a mile of your home where you can buy fresh produce and nutritious ingredients for meals?

Or is your only choice to buy from convenience stores or gas stations, where the main choices are tinned foods and sodas with ingredients that seem to consist mostly of numbers? If so, you’re quite likely in a food desert.

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Another study estimated that 19 million people — 6.2 percent of the total U.S. population — may live in food deserts. And if you live in a low-income area, that could well include you and your family.

Let’s take a look at the info on food deserts and potential solutions.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Food deserts are communities that don’t have easy and affordable access to fresh, nutritious food. They’re regions that generally have:

  • large or super spread-out populations
  • low wages
  • high unemployment levels
  • inefficient or sparse public transport
  • a low number of grocery stores selling nutrient-rich food at affordable prices

It’s not about having zero access to food (even though that *is* a concern), but about having limited access to fresh fruit, meat, and veggies. Only having access to convenience-store sodas and chips doesn’t make for wholesome eating and is a one-way ticket to Health Concerns Central.

Why do food deserts exist?

One study showed that poverty is the main factor that turns a community into a food desert. It’s not just because you earn a low wage, and those tempting veggies are just too expensive — it’s also because a car might not be within your price range.

You might be more than happy to bring home a sack of carrots and potatoes for nutrient-rich meals. But without affordable transportation, how are you going to reach them?

It can also come down to geography. According to a 2012 research review, convenience stores are more likely to set up shop in under-resourced or nonwhite neighborhoods, as are fast-food outlets. Both of these are major contributors to food deserts.

Low quality foods + plus no other options = food deserts. Your neighborhood can be a massive factor in how well you eat.

U.S. food desert stats

There have been some efforts to change the food desert situation in the United States, especially since 2010 when Michelle Obama launched the National Healthy Food Financing Initiative. So, there’s been some reduction in some states’ presence of food deserts, including:

  • North Dakota
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Rhode Island
  • Wisconsin
  • Alabama
  • Kansas
  • New York
  • Arkansas
  • Indiana

However, states like Nevada and Maine have seen an increase in the number of areas with low access to nutrient-rich foods. While stores like Walmart pledged to open new stores in low-access areas, they also closed 223 stores between 2015 and 2019, creating three new food deserts.

It’s estimated that between 35.2 million and 83.5 million peeps live in areas with low access to healthy food. And nonwhite communities are 30 percent more likely to encounter reduced access to nutritious noms.

Examples of food deserts

Memphis, Tennessee, has a whole bunch of food deserts. It’s seen repeated grocery store closures. This has some of the city’s low-income areas yo-yo-ing between access to wholesome foods and having that access disappear again.

But while people in the lower-access areas of Memphis experience challenges finding stores that provide nutritious foods or face a 3- to 4-mile trek to places that provide them, the affluent city center sees clusters of fresh food markets pop up. It’s this imbalance that contributes to food deserts, leaving areas like South Memphis with barely any grocery stores at all.

And Memphis isn’t alone. New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and many other cities have seen similar issues.

You’re more likely to live in a food desert if you tick one or more of these boxes:

  • You live in an area with a sparse, spread-out population.
  • You live in an inner city, but not the flashy part — you’re out in the ‘burbs.
  • You earn a lower wage and have less money to spend on high quality food.
  • You’re part of a nonwhite community.

Studies showed that 29 percent of zip codes in the United States don’t have a grocery store or supermarket, and 74 percent don’t have a chain supermarket. If you’re in a deeply rural area, it could mean that finding nutritious food is trickier than you might think.

It’s important to note that racial disparities and racist social systems play a huge role in the causes and effects of food deserts.

Even in urban areas, 7 percent of zip codes have no grocery stores, and 53 percent have no chain supermarkets. The following stats seem to hold true:

  • Black neighborhoods have half as much access to supermarkets as white neighborhoods. (These neighborhoods also tend to have more convenience stores and fast-food chains, leading to a food swamp — which we’ll find out about later.)
  • Hispanic neighborhoods have one-third as much access to chain supermarkets as non-Hispanic ones.
  • Black neighborhoods have faced the biggest decrease in grocery stores since 1997.

So, how do you find out if you live in a food desert?

It’s actually pretty simple: Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s handy map. At first glance, it might look like your state is in pretty good shape. But zoom in, and you’ll find more food deserts than you were expecting, all marked in green shading.

You can also adjust the map for different criteria. By default, it shows you areas that are low-income and where nutritious food is more than 1 mile away (for urban areas) or 10 miles away (for rural areas). But you can adjust it for different distances, or even to show areas where the majority of residents don’t own a car.

Click all those boxes, and you’ll see the true scale of food deserts and their associated problems. It’s not a pretty picture.

Food deserts have a harmful effect on people’s health. To maintain a balanced diet, it’s recommended that you try the following solutions as best you can:

This isn’t so easy when you’re surviving on what the convenience store provides. Think about what your local convenience store sells, then compare it to the notion of a varied, nutrient-dense diet in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

Remember seeing much of those at your local gas station? Nope, we don’t either.

Food deserts and obesity

Food deserts play a decisive role in both malnutrition and obesity for many people, because you can generally get either too little nutritious food or too much ultra-processed food.

After all, if you can’t get access to fresh fruit and veggies, but there’s a fast-food chain down the street, you’re going to take that option rather than starve, right?

That road can lead to obesity, as can the less healthy foods often supplied at convenience stores. And the health problems to which overweight can contribute include:

A hearty “no” to all of that, thank you.

Food deserts aren’t the only food access issue people face. Food swamps, food insecurity, and food mirages can also have a serious impact.

Food swamps

Food swamps are the opposite of food deserts — you’ve got access to way more food than you’ll ever need. Just all the foods.

But they also have too much fast-food. That can lead to a food swamp, where you have access to healthy and affordable foods, but the same obesity concerns occur due to all those unhealthy choices thrown into the mix.

In fact, a 2017 research review suggested that food swamps might have closer links to obesity than food deserts.

North of the border? In Canada, urban food swamps are more common than food deserts (poutine it into context).

Food insecurity

Food insecurity becomes a problem when limited money means limited access to food of any type. You might feel like you’re living day-to-day because you’re never sure if you’ll have the money to feed yourself or your family that evening.

One study showed that the number of people living with food insecurity has increased by 60 percent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also suggested that the policies put in place to bridge this gap aren’t working.

Food mirages

Food mirages happen when you live in an area with lovely, fresh, nutritious food on deck, but it’s out of your budget.

It happens a lot in areas that have gone through gentrification. This means that although there’s a great farmers market right on your doorstep, you still have to travel a large distance to be able to buy your food. In many ways, they actually function exactly the same as food deserts.

You may be able to see that delicious food, but you can’t get your hands on it.

Resources for people facing food insecurity

According to Feeding America, it’s estimated that up to 42 million Americans might be facing food insecurity, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re one of them, here are some resources that may help:

Or you can find the location of your nearest food bank. Times might be hard, but help isn’t far away.

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Food deserts are a tough problem to solve at an individual level. After all, you can’t force a chain supermarket to move into your area. (“You! Target! Get over here!”)

But there are some potential solutions to the crisis, as well as a couple of ideas you could bring to the attention of your local congressperson or community leader.

Narrow the distance between you and fresh produce

Your closeness to a supermarket that sells fresh produce is a huge barrier.

Studies showed that food deserts in Korea were heavily affected by the distance people had to travel to reach a supermarket. Japan, on the other hand, managed the problem by encouraging convenience stores to sell fresh produce, providing community buses, and even delivering healthy lunchboxes to people.

So, why not encourage local communities to do the same? Is there the possibility of community buses or asking convenience stores to sell fresh produce? After all, there’s a neighborhood of people who’ll go to their store to buy it.

Farmers markets FTW

Another great solution is that of farmers markets. And they don’t even need to be big events: if there’s a farmer willing to load up some of their produce on a truck and sell it in your neighborhood, they’ll probably be a big hit — good for you, and good for the farmer.

A study involving farmers markets in Hawaii suggested that the markets could accept food assistance program funds, which would improve their reach and go a huge way towards solving a massive problem.

Grow your own

In the meantime, if you have access to a garden, how about starting a vegetable garden? Or checking whether there’s a community growing plot nearby? Growing your own food is easier than you think — and you can even grow veg indoors, in an apartment.

It won’t solve the whole problem, but sprouting your own spuds, greens, herbs, and peppers can help you bulk out your nutrition haul.

Food deserts, where people living in low-income areas have little or no access to supermarkets that sell nutritious food, are widespread in America.

We all need to eat a well-rounded diet stay on top of our health, and when you can’t access the food you need, through no fault of your own, it can be tough to manage.

You might have to just take what you can get, even if that’s ultra-processed food, just to feed yourself and your family. But an overreliance on these foods can lead to a whole host of health concerns. This, in turn, has even more stress, illness, and bills piling up on your doorstep.

If you live in a food desert or face food insecurity because of reduced income, help is at hand. Several food assistance programs can help. As the awareness of food deserts grows, there’s more consideration of community projects or farmers markets that may help neighborhoods out.