Food Desert

Are you ever so busy with work, school, or both that you don't have time to make it to the grocery store or cook, so you just eat whatever is closest? Perhaps you'll eat some unhealthy fast food or snack on things until you are full. What if, instead of eating this way because it was the easiest option, you had to eat this way because there simply were no other options? This is a food desert—an area where affordable, healthy food is difficult to access. In this explanation, we will explore food deserts, a common form of food insecurity. Keep reading to learn more about rural food deserts, solutions, and more.

Food Desert Food Desert

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Table of contents

    Food Desert Definition

    A food desert is an area with limited access to healthy and affordable food. In the United States, the term "food deserts" has become a common way of describing rural or urban areas where fresh produce and public transportation are limited.

    The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a couple of metrics to define food deserts. If any area meets both these conditions, it is considered a food desert:

    • Areas with a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income.1

    • At least 500 people and/or one-third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas.1

    According to the USDA, about 13.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts with low access to healthy foods.2

    Commonly, "food deserts" is a term used in the United States. Food deserts are a type of food insecurity, yet not everyone suffering from food insecurity is in a food desert. Food deserts refer mostly to places where there are no healthy and nutritious food options available in close proximity to the person, whereas in developing countries, we may be referring to food insecurity from famine or conflict as there not being enough food for everyone in the area period, healthy or unhealthy. When talking about food deserts, especially in the United States, it is not so much about a lack of food in general, just that there are no nutritious or healthy options available. This can lead to several health problems and declines in life expectancy.

    Check out our explanation on Feeding the World!

    Food Desert Map

    Food Deserts, US Food Deserts, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Food deserts in the US

    Above, we can see a map of food deserts in the United States. This map can easily show rural areas of the United States that may be considered food deserts or suffer from low food access and proximity. Urban areas need a much smaller distance from grocery stores to be considered food deserts, as many people in urban areas do not have their own means of transportation and would be reliant on public transportation systems.

    Food Deserts in the US

    In the United States, public transportation is often very limited, and accessible fresh produce is often transported to areas where it can be sold for a higher price. This culture neglects access to healthy food as a human right in favor of for-profit ventures. It's not that food is not available, but the quality of choices is limited as many shops might sell low-quality processed foods that years of consuming can lead to serious health issues such as diabetes or cancer. This can be a vicious cycle that is difficult for consumers to get out of when access to healthier options is very limited.

    In the United States, this affects low-income communities the most, rural and urban. If fresh produce sells for higher prices in higher-income communities, those places will get the priority of where grocery store companies will open new locations and send their best produce. If they are unable to sell produce in low-income areas for what they do in higher-income areas, then from a business standpoint lower income areas become less of a priority. Those stores that do move into low-income areas are establishments that can sell food at a low cost which often means producing foods at a low cost—which, in turn, often means unhealthy options.

    Food Deserts, Unhealthy Foods, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Unhealthy foods

    Food deserts in the United States can often be seen as a racial issue, as ethnic minorities predominantly inhabit many low-income urban areas. Many advocates argue that in urban areas, there is a food apartheid, segregating access to food based on racially biased political structures. While there are many food deserts in low-income urban areas, many rural, predominantly white areas of the United States are also food deserts.

    Rural Food Deserts

    As we mentioned earlier, rural food deserts are described by the United States Department of Agriculture as rural areas with at least one out of three people living more than 10 miles from a supermarket.1

    In rural areas, the distance to grocery stores may be more of a challenge compared with urban areas. In rural towns, there may be one or two shops or fast-food establishments, but getting things such as fresh produce may be uncommon and far away.

    Lack of transportation can become a huge factor in poor nutrition and poor health in rural food deserts. In the United States especially, public transportation is limited in urban areas. But in rural areas, public transportation is often nonexistent.

    Food Desert Examples

    An example of an urban food desert:

    In Washington DC, many food deserts are in the southeast of the city east of the Anacostia River. This area is also predominantly African American. Over 75 percent of Washington DCs food deserts are in this area. This means many residents make costly and time-consuming trips away from where they live to get to grocery stores with fresh produce and healthy food options.3

    An example of a rural food desert:

    Another example of a food desert is rural Appalachia in the United States. Isolated areas in the mountains of the mid-Atlantic in the United States are food deserts. Such places may be isolated from supermarkets and transportation, especially with inclement weather during the winter months, which can be challenging. Appalachia stretches along the eastern United States in the mountains and through some of the poorest states in the US. During the winter months, many communities can be fairly isolated, with hazardous roads and supermarkets an hour or more away in many places.

    Food Desert Solutions

    Solutions to food deserts often have three aspects: transportation, availability, and, more recently, education. Many initiatives attempt to bring fresh produce to communities that may lack it.

    Often food deserts are in areas that are not profitable for large supermarket chains to put a location; therefore lower income areas are more affected. To resolve this, local governments often incentivize or subsidize grocery store chains to move to these locations.

    Beyond large grocery store chains in many urban areas in the United States, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and members of communities have identified this issue and taken it into their own hands to devise a food desert solution: small grocery stores with healthy options fill gaps in food deserts where larger stores haven't or won't go to.3

    However, better access may not be the solution for people who have grown up in food deserts.

    The philosophy surrounding food deserts has changed dramatically in the last decade.

    Previously it was thought that unhealthy eating, poor nutrition, and ailments such as diabetes and obesity would drop when, for instance, local governments subsidize a large grocery store to come to a community previously lacking one. This grocery store would bring more food options closer to home for the community. These options would include healthy foods and fresh produce, though new grocery stores often also stock the unhealthy foods that people in the community might have been used to because that was what they previously had access to.

    Some studies have found that the contents of a person's shopping chart are unlikely to change when access to more nutritious food becomes available, suggesting that although food deserts might cause people to develop unhealthy eating habits, the solution is not as simple as presenting healthier options to people as habits and preferences have already been strongly established.4

    It is difficult to change people's habits, in other words. In many stores in the United States, healthy and unhealthy food choices are often similar in price.4

    Food Deserts, Healthy Foods, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Healthy foods

    The solution not only involves better access to healthy foods but also changing habits and perceptions around healthy food and healthy eating. However, when young people have better access to healthy foods to begin with, they may develop healthier habits earlier. Therefore, access to healthier food options would be available for future generations of the communities and may be more likely to lead to the development of healthy eating habits earlier in life instead of needing to change habits later on.

    In summary, efforts for better quality education on healthy eating in combination with better food access may be more effective in alleviating some ailments that come from poor diets and improving the overall health of the population.

    Food Deserts - Key takeaways

    • A food desert does not mean there is no food. It means there is no easily accessible, nutritious, and/or affordable food.

    • Habits of unhealthy diets brought on by food deserts are hard to break even when access to healthier foods becomes more accessible.

    • Food deserts are common in low-income communities in rural and urban areas.

    • Urban food deserts disproportionately affect minority ethnic groups.

    References

    1. Ver Ploeg Michele, Nulph David, Williams, Ryan. “Mapping Food Deserts in the United States.” https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2011/december/data-feature-mapping-food-deserts-in-the-us/. 01, Dec 2011.
    2. Wright Ann. “Interactive Web Tool Maps Food Deserts, Provides Key Data.” https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2011/05/03/interactive-web-tool-maps-food-deserts-provides-key-data#:~:text=In%20the%20Food%20Desert%20Locator,supermarket%20or%20large%20grocery%20store. 30, April 2021.
    3. Sanchez, Vanessa. “Black-owned stores work to end D.C.’s food deserts.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/07/07/dc-food-deserts-anacostia/. 7, July 2022.
    4. Chicago Booth Review, Dube, Jean-Pierra. “The ole in the Food-Desert Hypothesis.” https://www.chicagobooth.edu/review/hole-food-desert-hypothesis. 21, February 2019.
    5. Figure. 3 – Health Foods. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Healthy_food_ingredients.jpg) by Dan Gold (https://unsplash.com/@danielcgold) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Food Desert

    What is a food desert? 

    An area with little access to healthy and affordable food.

    Where are food deserts located? 

    In low-income areas, rural and urban.

    Why do food deserts exist? 

    Economic factors such as the cost of producing healthy foods and profit on selling such foods can lead to many grocery stores not having locations in low-income areas. 

    How to solve food deserts? 

    This is a controversial question, but better access to healthy and affordable foods combined with education on healthy eating is a good place to start. 

    Why are food deserts a problem? 

    Lack of access to healthy food can lead to numerous health problems that lower quality of life and life expectancies, such as diabetes and obesity. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Where are food deserts?

    What type of food would there be in food deserts?

    How many people are estimated to live in low-food access areas in the United States?

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