In certain parts of the country, people struggle to find food that is healthy, nutritious, and affordable. These individuals often live in low-income, rural communities and don’t have access to supermarkets or reliable transportation. These areas are known as food deserts.

What Is a Food Desert?

Often present in impoverished areas, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an area without access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy, whole foods. In 2010, the USDA reported that 23.5 percent of Americans live in a food desert, which equates to about 76 million people.

Nearly half of all food deserts are in low-income communities and communities of color.1 Residents in impoverished food deserts often don’t have cars or access to suitable public transportation, and many rely on convenience stores or fast-food restaurants for nutrition.

The USDA Food Access Research Atlas is an interactive map that shows the areas in the U.S. that qualify as food deserts.

Not surprisingly, diet-related health problems are disproportionately higher in food deserts than in regions served by mainstream grocers.2 Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults are at least overweight based on BMI, and food deserts may be a factor in this epidemic, especially in low-income communities.3 When people have little or no access to nutritious food, they are likely to have unbalanced diets or skip meals. Additionally, the meals they do get are often made up of processed foods full of fat, sodium, and sugar. Food deserts help to explain the connection between hunger, poverty, and obesity in low-income communities.4

A Troubling New Trend

Fifty years ago, locally owned markets were common in urban and rural areas. As local markets were replaced by large chain supermarkets, grocery retailers moved out of impoverished areas, leaving residents without fresh-food retailers.2 Some assume that stores in impoverished areas aren’t as profitable, which holds true to some extent. Both rural and urban food deserts have a hard time attracting and keeping commercial grocery stores. For example, in Kansas, one in five grocery stores in communities of fewer than 2,500 people went out of business between 2006 and 2010.5

The USDA estimates that groceries sold in food deserts are 10 percent more expensive than groceries sold in suburban markets. Because larger grocery stores are typically more profitable in wealthy areas, grocery prices are driven up for the impoverished, making it even harder for those affected to afford fresh, healthy, whole foods.2

A Minneapolis survey revealed that 94 percent of residents would purchase more fresh produce if it were available at convenience stores.6 Because selling healthier options isn’t viewed as economically viable for retailers, several solutions have been established over the years to help afflicted residents.

One way to provide fresh food in food deserts is through urban community gardening. In many cities, empty lots have been turned into miniature farms where residents exchange their time and labor for freshly grown fruits and vegetables. Other cities have mobile fresh-food trucks that deliver produce to underserved communities. Other ways to alleviate food deserts are for cities to improve public transportation so residents can access grocery stores and supermarkets or to provide incentives for fresh-food retailers to move into certain areas.

Creating Healthy Mindsets

It’s important to understand that enabling access to a grocery store is not enough to change dietary habits. Unfortunately, many individuals don’t have nutrition education, don’t know how to prepare food, or don’t have much time in the day to prepare food for their family. In some cases, fresh produce might be more expensive than convenience store foods.

Providing healthy food is the first step to changing unhealthy eating habits and needs to be followed by education and support to empower people to transition into healthy lifestyles.