What Is A Food Desert: Information About Food Deserts In America

What Is A Food Desert: Information About Food Deserts In America

By: Amy Grant

I live in an economically vibrant metropolis. It’s expensive to live here and not everyone has the means to live a healthy lifestyle. Despite the ostentatious wealth showcased throughout my city, there are many areas of urban poor more recently referred to as food deserts. What is a food desert in America? What are some of the causes of food deserts? The following article contains information on food deserts, their causes and food desert solutions.

What is a Food Desert?

The United States Government defines a food desert as “a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

How do you qualify as low income? You must meet the Treasury Departments New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to be eligible. To qualify as a food desert, 33% of the population (or a minimum of 500 people) in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or grocery store, such as Safeway or Whole Foods.

Additional Food Desert Information

How is a low income census tract defined?

  • Any census tract in which the poverty rate is at least 20%
  • In rural areas where the median family income doesn’t exceed the 80 percentile of statewide median family income
  • Within a city the median family income doesn’t exceed 80% of the greater of statewide median family income or that of the median family income within the city.

“Low access” to a healthy grocers or supermarket means that the market is more than a mile away in urban areas and more than 10 miles away in rural regions. It gets a little more complex than that, but I trust you get the gist. Basically, we are taking about people that have little to no access to healthy food options within walking distance.

With such a surfeit of food available in the United States, how is it that we are talking about food deserts in America?

Causes of Food Deserts

Food deserts are brought about by a number of factors. They are typically located in low income areas where people often do not own a car. While public transportation can assist these people in some instances, often economic flux has driven grocery stores out of the city and into the suburbs. Suburban stores are often so far from the person, they may have to spend most of a day getting to and from the grocers, not to mention the task of carrying groceries home from a bus or subway stop.

Secondly, food deserts are socio-economic, meaning they arise in communities of color combined with low income. Less disposable income combined with a lack of transportation typically leads to the purchase of fast foods and processed foods available at the corner store. This leads to an increase in heart disease, higher incidence of obesity and diabetes.

Food Desert Solutions

About 23.5 million people live in food deserts! It’s such a huge problem the United States Government is taking steps to reduce food deserts and increase access to healthy foods. First Lady Michelle Obama is leading the charge with her “Let’s Move” campaign, whose goal is to eradicate food deserts by 2017. With this goal in mind, the U.S. has contributed $400 million to provide tax breaks to supermarkets that open in food deserts. Many cities are also working on solutions to the food desert problem.

Knowledge is power. Educating those in the community or tract of the food desert can help make changes, such as growing their own food and working with local convenience stores to sell healthier food options. Public awareness of food deserts can lead to healthy discourse and may even lead to ideas about how to end food deserts in America once and for all. No one should go hungry and everyone should have access to healthy food sources.

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‘Food desert' epidemic: A problem in Wilmington

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Boasting beautiful beaches, fine dining, a booming film industry and tourist attractions, to some, neighborhoods where there is little access to healthy, affordable food may seem non-existent in a place like the Port City.

But statistics show that thousands of folks are living in food deserts -- places where more than 20 percent of the people live below the poverty line and 33 percent live a mile or more from a grocery store. In Wilmington alone, 16,000 people live in food deserts.

WECT's Ashlea Kosikowski recently uncovered the locations of area food deserts to learn more on the hardships that families living in such communities face.

Wilmington resident Ernest Seward, who lives in a food desert, makes lunch for his wife inside of his kitchen at the couple's home in the Rankin Terrace community.

A glance inside of his refrigerator reveals bare, empty shelves -- evidence of the struggles his family faces. Ernest looks after his 61-year-old wife who became disabled after a stroke, and he says getting to the grocery store is a challenge.

"It's very difficult," he said. "Most of us here are on fixed incomes. Then, we have to pay for the bus fare or cab fare to get to the store, and pay to get back."

To even get to the store, it can take up to two and a half hours via bus.

In Wilmington, there are eight food deserts, and a map showing their locations reveals that all of them are located near public housing developments in the city.

Dr. Leslie Hossfeld is a sociology professor at UNCW, and she has been studying the area's food deserts.

"Since Wilmington is a pretty affluent community and we think of it as a tourist destination…as a prosperous county but we have huge pockets of great poverty," said Hossfield, adding that the deserts are part of a dangerous and growing epidemic. "There are enormous consequences on one's health over the long haul, so, greater risk of diabetes, increased weight gain, very real problems for low income communities."

She says food deserts are one of the reasons that America is seeing growing rates of obesity.

"Unhealthy food is cheap and it is readily available at fast food locations and convenience stores," she said. "Some of our research shows convenience stores don't sell anything raw or fresh because it is easier to sell alcohol, candy, cigarettes."

Hossfeld's research also explores solutions to these problems.

"Being aware of these food deserts and some of these infrastructure problems, getting bus routes that fit people's needs, and having grocery stores -- not convenience stores -- that have affordable food. These are really critical issues."

One of the ways Hossfeld is trying to address these issues is with Feast Down East, which is an initiative she started to connect low-income farmers with low-income consumers.

The mobile market sets up shop in Rankin Terrance every Friday, bringing fresh produce to those who have a hard time getting to the store.

Joan Johnson, who lives in the neighborhood, volunteers at the market.

"If you don't have a car, a lot of times you have to beg somebody and then pay them to go to the store," she said. "It is so time consuming. By the time you go and get back to the store, you are too tired to cook the food!"

Erin O'Donnell, who also volunteers at the market, says it also helps those on a fixed income.

"Not only the transportation piece of it, but the cost of it at stores," said O'Donnell. "We are able to sell this at a reduced price. So, people are more likely to purchase here than the grocery store 'cause it costs less."

What are food deserts, and how do they impact health?

Food deserts are regions where people have limited access to healthful and affordable food. This may be due to having a low income or having to travel farther to find healthful food options.

Without access to healthful foods, people living in food deserts may be at higher risk of diet-related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Several government bodies are now funding projects to prevent areas from becoming food deserts and to improve people’s access to food in existing food deserts.

Keep reading to learn more about food deserts and how they impact health.

Share on Pinterest Around 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts.

Food deserts are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthful foods. This may be due to having a limited income or living far away from sources of healthful and affordable food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) define a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.

In order to qualify as a food desert, an area must also meet certain other criteria. In urban areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 1 mile from the nearest large grocery store. In rural areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store.

The USDA identified around 6,500 food deserts between 2000 and 2006. Experts estimate that around 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low income areas that are farther than 1 mile to the nearest large grocery store. Of these people, 11.5 million have low incomes.

Health inequities affect all of us differently. Visit our dedicated hub for an in-depth look at social disparities in health and what we can do to correct them.

A 2012 USDA report on food deserts suggests that regions with the following characteristics are more likely to become food deserts:

  • very large or very sparse populations
  • low income
  • high levels of unemployment
  • inadequate access to transportation
  • a low number of food retailers providing fresh produce at affordable prices

The report also notes that rural areas located in the West, Midwest, and South of the U.S. are much more likely to be food deserts than rural areas located in the Northeast. This may be because rural areas in the Northeast tend to be closer to urban areas containing grocery stores.

According to the report, rural areas with growing populations may have a lower risk of becoming food deserts.

Experts have not yet reached an agreement regarding the characteristics of the populations that live within food deserts.

According to the 2012 USDA report, some research suggests that neighborhoods consisting primarily of low income minority ethnic groups have limited access to supermarkets compared with wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

The review also cites research suggesting that some low income neighborhoods have a greater number of grocery stores and live closer to these stores than wealthier people. In such cases, the issue may be the affordability of the foods rather than their proximity.

In rural areas, the most important predictor of food access is lack of transportation. This means that people who do not have their own bicycle or vehicle and lack access to public transportation are more likely to lack access to healthful foods.

Since researchers have not reached a consensus on the characteristics of the populations affected by food deserts, further investigations are necessary. Such investigations may help policymakers identify areas at risk of becoming food deserts so that they can implement better access to healthful foods.

Maintaining a healthful diet involves:

  • eating a variety of foods from all food groups
  • controlling calorie intake
  • limiting the intake of saturated and trans fatty acids, added sugars, and excess sodium

According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans , a healthful diet should include the following foods:

  • a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fat-free or low fat dairy
  • protein-rich foods, including:
    • seafood
    • lean meats and poultry
    • eggs
    • legumes
    • nuts and seeds
    • soy products
  • healthful oils

People living in food deserts may have limited access to supermarkets and other food retailers offering healthful and affordable foods. Even when convenience stores and small grocers stock healthful foods, they are often too expensive for people with a low income to afford.

People living in food deserts may therefore be more reliant on food retailers or fast food restaurants offering a more affordable but limited variety of foods.

The lack of access to healthful foods and easy access to fast foods may be linked to poor diets that are high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthful fats. This can contribute to diet-related conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Some of the health effects of living in a food desert include:

  • a higher incidence of obesity
  • increased prevalence of diabetes
  • other weight-related conditions, especially in children

Many food deserts also provide limited or unaffordable healthcare services. This contributes to negative health outcomes for people living in these areas.

People use a number of terms to describe a population’s access to food. The sections below outline some other examples.

Food swamps

A food swamp is a region that provides adequate access to healthful and affordable food, as well as an overabundance of less healthful food options.

In Canadian urban areas, food swamps are more common than food deserts.

Food mirages

A food mirage describes an area where people live close to grocery stores offering a variety of healthful foods but cannot afford those foods.

Because of this, people must travel farther to find healthful foods that are within budget.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity refers to limited or insecure access to food because of financial constraints. Families and people with low incomes may not have enough money to afford healthful foods.

Policymakers are actively looking for solutions to improve access to healthful foods in food deserts throughout the US.

The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program fund sustainable food projects that help low income communities gain access to nutritious and culturally acceptable diets.

These projects also address broader economic, social, and environmental issues surrounding the food system. Some of the issues that the Community Food Projects aim to address include:

  • increasing the availability of healthful, locally sourced foods through:
    • affordable grocery stores
    • affordable markets
    • backyard and community gardens
    • food assistance programs
    • food buying clubs
  • encouraging healthful dietary habits by providing education and training on food production, preparation, and nutrition
  • enrolling eligible residents into government nutrition programs
  • increasing access to local farmers markets
  • promoting safe and fair farm worker conditions
  • supporting sustainable agricultural practices that protect the air, water, soil, and habitats
  • supporting food industry entrepreneurs
  • celebrating and honoring diverse food cultures
  • encouraging residents to participate in food system planning
  • giving residents a say on food-related decisions that people make in government

Food deserts are areas where people are unable to gain access to healthful foods. They are a major issue affecting millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe.

Experts suggest that living in a food desert may put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related conditions.

Community Food Projects are working to improve food systems in food deserts. Their overall aim is to help increase residents’ access to healthful foods.


This paper aims to examine the realities of food deserts and the vulnerable populations in urban areas in the USA review underlying causes of these realities and propose a set of solutions to address challenges facing vulnerable populations living in urban food deserts.


The paper presents a case study with a focus on a specific vulnerable population living in a food desert in the inner city of Richmond, Virginia.


While vulnerable populations and food deserts have much in common, in general, they both reflect, for specific groups of people, a failure to achieve or even having a chance to achieve the American dream. In particular, they reflect the economic, social, culture and education disenfranchisement of many citizens in society.


This exploratory paper and case study offers a beginning reference point to both understand and deal with urban food deserts and the vulnerable populations that reside there-in. Food deserts are a serious problem that is historically based and contemporarily reinforced by economic, social and cultural/community realities in society. By first understanding these realities, the paper calls for research and action.

The Impact of Living in a Food Desert

Lacking access to proper nutrition can have a direct impact on many areas of a person’s life. Children have the specific issue of a difficult time learning and functioning at school. Families who are food insecure can suffer from a whole range of problems, from obesity to heart disease. This is because families living in food deserts only have access to high-calorie, low nutritional types of foods. Economically, the impact is equally devastating. No one wants to live where access to food is difficult. Therefore, new businesses will not move in, and newer, affluent neighbors will avoid the area. Large supermarket chains do not often choose to locate in rural areas because of the insufficient number of people living in the area to make it profitable. Also, the supermarkets and food stores that do determine to locate into these food desert areas often charge more for the food in comparison to their suburban counterparts.

Impoverished families often receive food stamps and other government subsidies, so resources are thin. Many living in a food desert will go to great lengths to travel to grocery stores where their food dollars will go further, even if this means taking multiple buses and an entire day to get there. This inequity has given rise to several foundations and groups whose aim is to bring food back into the food deserts so that those living in these neighborhoods can begin to live healthier lives.

What is being done to alleviate food deserts?

No one group seems to agree on how food deserts might best be eliminated. Some urban areas offer mobile supermarkets that bring healthier food choices to residents in the food deserts. Food desert residents on food stamps can now use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards online and often order their groceries online. However, these solutions are either too costly or simply not a permanent fix. Some residents in food deserts have banded together to form their own neighborhood food programs, where they create and maintain a community garden or offer a food cooperation group with other areas nearby. Some cities have begun to offer incentives for stores to go into underserved areas and for farmers’ markets to accept food stamps. Still, much work has yet to be done, and until the federal government begins to step in to help as well, it is uncertain how each state will tackle this continuing problem.

Watch the video: How Two Los Angeles Entrepreneurs Are Fighting Americas Food Desert Crisis. NBCLX