Introduction: Food Deserts

Food deserts – or food apartheid, as some frame this issue – have profound effects on the health and economic activity of a community.

The average American grocery store offers over 42,000 food options to its customers, most of which are available year-round and offer relatively affordable prices. Many Americans living in either urban inner cities or rural parts of the country have sparser food options due to limited access to grocery stores or farmers’ markets. Often called a “food desert,” a controversial term in food justice because it implies a natural or accidental condition rather than one created by economic and social-political factors, this situation disproportionately impacts low-income people and communities of color.


Corner stores and fast-food restaurants are more accessible in food desert areas, offering cheap food, usually high in calories but low in nutrition. Food deserts are often located in communities that lack reliable public transportation, or the community residents are unable to afford the transportation needed to access healthier food choices. As a result, these communities suffer higher rates of diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. Studies have found that increased access to healthy foods corresponds with improvements in healthy eating habits.



While there are no official guidelines for what defines the parameters of a food desert, the USDA has multiple measures for food desert communities. The basic measure is by distance: if an individual lives more than 10 miles from a supermarket (in a rural area) or more than 1 mile from a supermarket (in an urban area), that individual lives in a food desert. Other parameters include income and access to a vehicle or public transportation. See the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas for an interactive map of indicators.


A Note on the Term “Food Desert”
As mentioned above, the term “food desert” is not entirely embraced by the food justice community. Those against the term argue that a “desert” is a naturally occurring phenomenon, while a “food desert” is an intentional condition caused by factors like redlining, zoning laws, corporate consolidation and housing costs. Other terms describing food deserts, such as “supermarket abandonment” or “food apartheid,” bring to light the intentional nature of how the food system has neglected disenfranchised communities. Though WhyHunger prefers to frame the issue within this complex context, the term “food desert” is used here because it is the term generally used by academics, the media and the public. So far, no other terminology has been widely accepted.

Impact on Rural Communities
Before the 1960s, most communities in both rural and urban America were built around town squares that offered numerous food purchasing opportunities, and most homes grew at least some vegetables in the backyard. During and shortly after World War II, over 20 million home gardens called “Victory Gardens” provided over 40 percent of all produce consumed in the United States.

In the years that followed, farms were consolidated and farmworkers were replaced by mechanization. In rural America, the collapse of small family farms meant fewer jobs and resources. Many local stores went out of business, limiting food purchasing options. Today, many rural communities have difficulty accessing healthy food due to few nearby grocery stores, often having to drive more than 10 miles to reach the nearest supermarket. Public transportation is virtually non-existent in rural communities, and fuel and maintenance of a personal vehicle can add considerably to the overall expense of buying groceries.

Impact on Urban Communities
A similar situation has occurred in pockets of America’s urban centers over the last forty years. As the industrial growth that sparked urban development dwindled, jobs became scarce. Simultaneously, racial and economic tensions instigated significant population shifts away from the inner city into the suburbs. This trend, often called “white flight,” left many inner city communities without the buying power to sustain grocery store chains. Entrepreneurs followed the profits and moved to the suburbs. Redlining – an intentional strategy by banks and zoning legislators to deny loans, insurance and jobs to specifically defined, racially determined, urban areas – ensured that urban African American communities remained isolated and were prevented from accessing services and creating economic growth. Would-be grocery store owners in redlined neighborhoods were denied loans and bank accounts, making new business opportunities scarce.

Health Consequences
Food deserts are correlated with increased instances of diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. These health concerns are in part due to the availability of inexpensive packaged foods or fast foods containing high concentrations of sugar, fat and sodium and lacking in nutrients. These health consequences disproportionately affect people of color, low-income families, and people who already experience chronic health issues at higher rates. According to a nationwide study conducted in 2012, the cost of diagnosed diabetes is approximately $176 billion each year in medical expenses alone.


Policy and grassroots solutions

 Public awareness of diet-related diseases and their causes is pushing policy makers in both urban and rural communities to create policies that increase access to fresh foods. The USDA’s Economic Research Service makes several policy recommendations at both the national and local levels. Incentive policies to reduce the costs of expanding or starting supermarkets, subsidize development of new stores, or increase the availability of healthy foods in existing shopshave been successful. Initiatives to increase the number of farmers’ markets in underserved neighborhoods and incentivize residents to shop at farmers’ markets, such as doubling the value of SNAP benefits, increase access to and affordability of fresh foods. Programs that improve public transportation, such as expanding service and subsidizing low-income families with transportation services, can increase access to supermarkets. These policies coupled with community-based solutions can be effective in increasing access to healthy foods in food desert areas.


While government intervention is important in bringing fresh foods to food deserts, grassroots organizing has the power to affect long-term change. Some common community-based solutions include:

  • Community Food Assessments, or detailed surveys of a community’s food-related challenges and assets, are great first steps in changing a local food system and can provide valuable information for making better decisions about how to help individuals access better food and stimulate a local economy.
  • Food Policy Councils are usually a collection of individuals, grassroots organizations, businesses and other stakeholders that offer data-based policy recommendations to local municipalities.
  • Community gardens and urban farms can connect rural and urban communities to affordable fresh foods.
  • Farmers’ markets link local farmers directly with consumers, and they are growing in popularity : the number of farmers’ markets doubled from 2006 to 2013. Many of these farmers’ markets accept SNAP benefits.

For more information on community-based programs, see Building Community Power and Community Voices.

Special thanks to Edwin Marty, Executive Director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm , for his contributions to this article.


Updated 9/2014