What Are Food Deserts and Why Do They Still Exist?

by Madison Cavallaro

Food deserts, not to be confused with desserts, are defined as communities and neighborhoods with limited access to affordable nutritious foods. These areas are more common than you think, especially in the United States. Individuals living in urban or rural low-income areas are subject to this limited access. Before you say, “well what about Trader Joe’s?” Markets like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods alike tend to position themselves in high-income areas.1,2 This is especially surprising since Trader Joe’s prides itself on being an affordable, high-quality market. To drive the point of image over bridging the gaps in disparities, research shows that high-end grocery stores drive up housing prices and in return, drive out low-income residents.1 So not only do high-end grocers drive out residents that can no longer afford the area, but other, arguably, more affordable markets like Trader Joe’s have no interest in expanding locations into these areas because of their image.


What Gives??? 

Annually, the United States throws out an average of 81.4 billion pounds of food3. That food waste occurs while 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts where they won’t even have the opportunity to access the food before it will be wasted. To make matters worse, individuals living in the poorest socio-economic status areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast food, an option that is affordable but lacks nutritionally dense food options. Not to mention the homeless population which is even more food and nutritionally insecure.4 As you can tell, there are huge systematic issues that contribute to inefficient food systems but the correlation of chronic illness and obesity with food insecurity is notable, adding to the importance of this issue.5


Contributing Factors

According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) accessibility, individual barriers, and neighborhood indicators contribute to an area recognized as a food desert. In many of these areas, the closest healthy source of food could be 10 miles, or it could be 40 miles. Individuals may face unique restrictions that lead to them not being able to access healthy food markets. This includes lack of funds, transportation, or time in their schedule, especially when needing to travel far distances. If the neighborhood income is near or below the poverty line, or lacks reliable public transport, this will also contribute to the development of food deserts.6 Even in higher-populated cities, where food and services are abundant, there may still be a lack of affordability and access to large markets.


What Has Been done

The USDA, CDC, Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, and Food Rescue US, have all made attempts to raise awareness about food deserts and nutrition. Food banks and the other organizations listed prior will help individuals get access to healthy foods by helping them locate a local food bank or by delivering healthy foods to residents’ homes. These are great outreach programs that help the unique problem of access and affordability of healthy foods with these programs being free to their users. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal program created to help affordability of foods as well. This program allows qualifying low-income households to receive funds to purchase nutritious foods. Other government programs are EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program) and SNAP-Ed. These programs aim to resolve the lack of education on nutritional health and the benefits of eating healthy.6 Though these programs are in place to help individuals living in and experiencing the negative effects of food deserts, the food deserts still exist, and they won’t disappear without systematic change.  


What Needs to Be Done

There is an evident roadblock to creating affordable healthy foods, and while supplementing food and funds for households helps, there needs to be a physical change to the institution of agriculture. Typically, commercialized agriculture involves multiple acres of land for the crop, which is then shipped out to food suppliers. You might live near a commercialized farm but have no access to the products if they do not supply to a food store near you. This is the case for many individuals living in rural areas. Urban Agriculture may be the golden ticket to not only creating local food access, but these types of community gardens will benefit the environment as well.

In urban agriculture, crops can be grown in communities on roofs or plots of land. The RUAF Foundation claims its most remarkable feature to be how it is incorporated into the urban economic and ecological systems. Such a linkage provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the community and provides employment opportunities. With more support behind urban farming initiatives, organizations can hire more laborers to manage these plots of land. Urban farming seems to have a domino effect, serving as a multifaceted tool providing locally available food, familiarity with local food, preference for local food, affordability, access, increased intake of healthy foods, and it even supports the local economy.7,8

Another remarkable benefit of urban farming is the impact it has on the environment. It might have been obvious that with more localized farming there is less waste and demand for commercialized farming. Well, we’ve hit the jackpot because recent research shows it also improves soil quality, reduces stormwater runoff, improves air quality, reduces urban heat effect, helps waste reduction, reduces carbon emissions, and increases biodiversity. Holy sh*t, yeah, that’s incredible. To further explain, having more central locations for produce not only will reduce food deserts, but it will also benefit the climate by diverting waste from landfills to composts. It will also reduce emissions from fruit and vegetable transport and provide stomping grounds for birds, insects, and earthworms. The plants themselves provide a cooling effect by photosynthesis, and improves soil nutrition, organic matter, and pH levels.8 These are just a few of the many reasons urban farming can foster progress in tackling aspects of climate change, food waste, poor nutrition, food deserts, poverty, organic agriculture, and homelessness.

It is no doubt that subsidized government programs are aiding in the impacts these issues bring on. But like in all health problems, if we only treat the symptoms, the problem will never go away. It is always the perfect time to start digging up the rotting roots that no longer are supporting the growth of the plant, and re-root it into new soil that was designed for optimum longevity. It’s time we apply our knowledge in these practices to systematic issues surrounding health in the country. 

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Sources: 1Grist / 2 Story Maps / 3 Rubicon / 4 Do Something / 5 NCBI / 6 Online Masters / 7 Vida Sostenible / 8 Repository 


Meet our Contributor

Madison is an Eating Disorder Consoler in Los Angeles. She graduated from Emmanuel College and Northeastern University in Boston with a B.S. and M.S. and specializes in health science and nutrition. Throughout her career, she has aspired to impact the nutrition field in a positive way. With her background and interest in sustainability, health, and wellness, she aims to address limitations in health by making these top

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