What Is a Food Desert?

Do you love vegetables? I sure do, and I’m fortunate enough to have a farmers’ market and four well-stocked grocers within five miles of me. In other words, I don’t live in a food desert.

Food deserts are regions of the country where residents do not have ready access to a grocery store. While they can be conceptualized in several different ways, the bottom line is that people can’t easily get fresh, healthy food. That has ominous implications for public health policy, which is why many people are worried about this issue.

The term “food desert” actually originates in the 1990s, when British researchers first began to identify the issue and explore its ramifications. When Michelle Obama entered the White House in 2009 and made healthy food a core cause, she popularized the idea in the United States. The first lady stressed that to improve outcomes for American youth, we needed to ensure that they had access to plentiful healthy food.

The United States Department of Agriculture maintains an atlas of food deserts in America. The agency examines several different factors when deciding what counts as a “food desert.”

The first is how far people have to travel to reach a store, as well as how many stores are located in a given area. Researchers also look at public transit — if there’s a store within a mile, but you have to walk, that’s weighed differently than one in a town with a bus line. Another major factor is community income. Household data can provide additional insight, including family income and number of personal vehicles.

This research into American food deserts has uncovered a number of important findings.

First, they’re found in both rural and urban areas. Second –and this may come as no surprise — they’re more common in low-income communities and communities of color, demographics that tend to overlap. Third, there’s a particularly high concentration in the South. There’s also a strong correlation between food deserts and the incidence of diet-driven illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Some people argue that the USDA definition may actually be making the problem seem less serious than it is. For example, stores classified as “groceries” in the agency’s metrics may only have limited food supplies, and little to no fresh food. Furthermore, that food could be overpriced and in poor condition. People with allergies and food restrictions may also struggle to find something to eat in a region that superficially appears to meet the needs of residents.

It’s also important to be aware that the fix for food deserts isn’t as simple as “build a grocery store” or “make convenience stores expand their offerings” or “bring in a farmers’ market.” Researchers note that people who live in food deserts have adapted their lives around these circumstances – and they may not know what to do when faced with fresh produce.

Instead, residents need nutrition education programs to get familiar with different fruits and vegetables and the ways to cook them. Nutrition education can also help people make evidence-based choices about what to eat.

Other critics argue that the health problems in low-income communities can’t be fixed with a nice kale salad. They emphasize that low-income communities have poor health because of factors like constant stress, economic segregation, poverty and other things that diet won’t fix.

Thus, public health interventions certainly should feature fresh food, but also take a more holistic look at communities to learn about their unique health care needs — and address them.

Photo credit: Cristina

81 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S3 months ago

thanks

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Jim V
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Marie W
Marie W6 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Lisa Zilli
Lisa Zilli7 months ago

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Janis K
Janis K7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Joan E
Joan E8 months ago

I heard a teacher on the radio trying to explain the word ripe to her students who live in an urban food desert. None of the local stores sold fresh fruit. The teacher tried the example of a green banana that hadn't turned yellow yet. The best the kids could figure was that "ripe" meant the fruit hadn't grown enough.

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Ann B
Ann B8 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Philippa P
Philippa Powers8 months ago

Thanks.

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