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What Are Food Deserts and Why Do Food Deserts Exist?

A food desert is a geographical area where it is difficult to buy healthy, nutritious food at an affordable price. Food deserts contrast with food oases, areas that have access to fresh vegetables and produce.

Nearly 40 million families in the U.S. live more than 20 miles away from the nearest store (USDA 2017). In other words, 40 million families in the U.S. live in a food desert. 

Definitions of food deserts include:

  • Areas where residents must travel a long or inconvenient distance to the nearest grocery store (known as low-access (LA) food deserts). 
  • Areas where healthy food may be available, but at an unaffordable price (known as low-income (LI) food deserts).

There are a number of characteristics that define food deserts, including access to food (the distance to or number of stores), household resources (household income and access to personal vehicles), and neighborhood resources (average neighborhood income and access to public transportation).

Food deserts make it extremely difficult for residents to get the nutrition they need. A lack of proper nutrition can lead to serious health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Food deserts can also increase carbon emissions as people have to travel farther (and emit more carbon dioxide) to reach a grocery store. Thus, food deserts are not only a socio-economic and political problem, but are also an environmental problem.

Read more: Why Do Food Deserts Exist?

Where Do Food Deserts Exist?

Food deserts around the U.S. commonly occur in areas that have many of the same attributes:

  • High poverty levels: High poverty makes it difficult to buy healthy food. These areas also disproportionately have lower access to transportation, making it more difficult to get to a grocery store. 
  • Small populations
  • High rates of vacant houses
  • Lower education levels
  • Higher unemployment rates
  • Communities of color: Food deserts are more likely to occur in primarily Black communities. A 2014 study showed that even in areas of equal poverty, Black communities are less likely than communities of other races to have access to grocery stores and fresh food (Bower et al. 2014).

While these are common attributes associated with food deserts, they are not the cause, nor do they occur in all food deserts.

Learn more about food deserts in the following locations: Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC.

Why Do Food Deserts Exist?

The large number of people living in food deserts in this country may lead you to the question, why do food deserts exist? There is no single reason that food deserts exist. Instead, a combination of political, economic, and social factors are to blame.

Food deserts are caused when communities don’t have access to income and/or transportation, both of which are necessary to be able to buy nutritious food. A lack of stores that sell healthy food in the area is the other key factor. This is often referred to as food insecurity, or the lack of physical or financial access to enough healthy food.

Places with many fast food chains, or where the only store selling food is a convenience store or dollar store, tend to be lower-income communities, which are also often communities of color. While this food is more affordable, it is less nutritious. Many argue that the high prevalence of food insecurity in Black and Hispanic households (and thus the higher incidences of food deserts) is a result of systemic racism and racial segregation.

Healthy food is also more expensive. In fact, a study that analyzed ten different countries found that more nutritious foods are at least $1.94 more expensive per 2000 calories. Even if healthy food is located conveniently in a low-income community, residents may not be able to afford it. This is a food desert (although some refer to this situation as a “food mirage.”)

Unfortunately there is more financial risk associated with opening a supermarket in low income communities, and so grocery stores selling healthier foods are not incentivized to open in these communities. Instead, grocery stores are opened in areas of higher income, and thus with less risk of not selling enough food.

Other reasons that for why food deserts exist include:

  • Racial segregation and systemic forms of racism that create barriers to accessing health food (Bower et al. 2014)
  • Other barriers to healthy food such as a lack of education on proper nutrition

Solutions for Food Deserts

Food deserts are a complicated problem whose solutions require a mixture of policy and community input. Generally, solutions are aimed at encouraging healthy dietary habits, lessening the financial burden of healthy food, and increasing ease of transit to grocery stores.

Public Health Initiatives to Promote Healthy Eating

Public policy initiatives run by nonprofits or by local governments aim to improve the effects of food deserts by encouraging healthy eating habits. This may include educational programs. While this may improve healthy choices, this is dependent on access to healthy foods in the first place.

Financial Incentives and Support for Neighborhood-Based Grocery Stores and Farmers Markets

Providing government-sponsored incentives and financial support for grocery stores to open in low income areas will help reduce the financial risks of grocery store owners. Subsidies and incentives encourage grocery stores to open in food deserts, and may allow for discounted health foods.

One example of this solution is a subsidized, government-run supermarket, in which the city or municipality owns the grocery store and pays employees on its payroll. The goal of this solution is not to make a profit selling food, but rather to provide residents with healthy options at affordable prices.

Local farmers markets, non-profit supermarkets, and food cooperatives are also great ways to increase access to fresh foods.

Increased Access To Vehicles And Other Public Transportation Systems

In addition to creating more healthy food options locally, increasing transportation options can help reduce food deserts.

One method to increase transportation to grocery stores is to build up better public transportation. This may include adding a bus stop or even creating a shuttle system within the town.

Additionally, some ride-sharing companies offer rides to grocery stores at discounted prices, either through the company or in partnership with a nonprofit. For example, Lyft ride sharing created the Grocery Access Program to discount the cost of rides to grocery stores. This program has been piloted successfully in Washington D.C. in 2019, and has expanded to Chicago, Baltimore, and Brooklyn.

That said, a 2017 USDA report found that financial restraints may be a greater barrier to fresh foods than proximity to grocery stores, so it is crucial to address financial instability in conjunction with increasing ease of access to grocery stores.

Increased Financial Assistance for Food Buyers

The best example of this solution is the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in which low-income families receive financial assistance for buying food. 

SNAP and other food stamps help relieve the financial burden of expensive healthy foods, but they must be implemented at the same time as increasing access to grocery stores. SNAP is not helpful if its recipients are unable to get to a grocery store to buy food in the first place.

One possible improvement is to allow SNAP customers to buy their groceries online. This would relieve the burden of finding and paying for transportation.

Dollar Store Restrictions

Dollar stores are springing up all over the U.S., especially in low-income areas with small populations. Dollar stores target areas with low transportation, displace and directly compete with grocery stores, and often do not provide fresh, healthy options.

Government restrictions on the founding of dollar stores aim to discourage the creation of dollar stores that replace local grocery stores.

Community Gardens

Lastly, the creation of community gardens helps provide fresh fruits and vegetables for very low cost.

However, community gardens do require input and effort from the community, and they still tend to be located in places that already have access to healthy food (Mack et al. 2017). Community gardens must be implemented thoughtfully and intentionally.