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Food Deserts: What to Know

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 05, 2023

A food desert is an area where affordable and healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, aren't easy to get. Here's a look at what causes them, how living in one can affect your health, and what you can do about it.

Where Are Food Deserts Located?

Areas with a large number of minorities, low-income people, and no reliable public transportation are more likely to be food deserts. According to the USDA's most recent food access research report, nearly 40 million Americans live in low-income and low-access areas.

What Causes Food Deserts?

It's a complex problem in which many factors, including socioeconomics and structural racism, play a role.

Low income and unemployment. Healthy foods are often more expensive. So even if you do live in an area with access to good foods, you may not be able to afford them. And in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and unemployment, there are fewer grocery stores and supermarkets because it's not as profitable. This is known as “supermarket redlining.” Instead, there might be more fast food chains and convenience stores that carry cheaper but more processed, unhealthy foods.

Structural racism. Research shows that Black and Latinx communities tend to have fewer grocery stores and access to healthy foods compared to white and other multiracial communities, especially in urban areas. This has a lot to do with structural issues and systemic racism such as discriminatory government policies, city planning, long-term settlement patterns, and isolating housing communities with Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to access good foods easily.

Lack of transportation. If you live in rural areas or urban areas with fewer grocery stores, you'll need to spend additional time and money to get to the nearest store. That's even harder if you don't own a car or have access to reliable public transportation.

Rural areas with small populations. Jobs that pay enough for you to buy healthy food, fewer places to buy said food, and reliable public transportation to get the food all play a role. In fact, 9 out of 10 counties in the country that have the highest levels of food insecurity are rural, research shows.

How Do Food Deserts Impact Health?

Research shows the processed and fast foods often found in food deserts tend to contain more:

  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Carbohydrates
  • Bad fats
  • Preservatives

Eating too much on a regular basis can take a toll on your health in a number of ways.

Lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods leaves those in food deserts more likely to face several medical conditions, such as:

  • Obesity and other wight-related problems
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Linked to certain types of cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriages
  • Premature death

What Can You Do About It?

If you or your loved ones live in a food desert, you can still find ways to eat healthy. Here are some tips to shop and eat better foods:

Carpool. If you live in a rural or urban area and lack means of transportation to get to the nearest grocery store, try to carpool with a friend or neighbor. This will also help you save on gas money.

Consider delivery. Check with the nearest grocer if they offer delivery options close to you.

Freeze leftovers or fresh produce. You can thaw it out or defrost later when you need it.

Plan your meals before you head to a grocery store. This way you can limit food waste and buy the appropriate amount to last you till your next run.

Check for local farmer's markets or mobile food vendors in your area. This will allow you to pick out fresh, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Grow a garden in your backyard or start a community garden in your neighborhood. Plant a variety of fast-growing vegetables and fruits.

Pick out healthy, less processed food options from convenience stores and drugstores or gas stations. These include brown rice, canned beans, and whole grain bread.

Look for grocery store coupons or sales. This can lower the cost of your grocery bill.

Talk to your local authorities. Reach out to mayors, governors, and senators about food zoning laws. Discuss changes they can make to lure and incentivize supermarkets to set up shop in your community.

You can also check with your local farmers market or grocery store to see if they accept or participate in food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), EBT, or child nutrition programs.

If you're in need of food assistance, call the USDA National Hunger Hotline at 866-348-6479 or 877-8-HAMBRE (877-842-6273) between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern time. You can also text an automated service for help at 914-342-7744.

They can help you find local food banks, resources for meal kits, and social services that can assist you and your community.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

USDA: “USDA National Hunger Hotline,” “Access to Affordable, Nutritious Food Is Limited in “Food Deserts”,” “ERS's Food Access Research Atlas reveals areas in the United States where people live far from supermarkets.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “Improving Food in the Neighborhood.”

Michigan State University: “Overcoming barriers to living in a food desert.”

Feeding America: “Millions of people in rural communities face hunger.”

University of California, Irvine: “Redlining's Legacy: Food Deserts, Insecurity, and Health.”

New York Law School: “Unshared Bounty: How Structural Racism Contributes to the Creation and Persistence of Food Deserts. (with American Civil Liberties Union).

The Annie E. Casey Foundation: “Food Deserts in the United States.”

AHA Journals: “Food Deserts.”

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