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What Are Food Deserts and Why Do They Exist?

April 5, 2022
Time to read: 7 minutes

For a lot of people, life without access to healthy food is hard to imagine. For far too many, however, it’s an everyday reality. The problem is not that we don’t produce enough food but that millions of people can’t access it, particularly those who live in areas known as food deserts. 

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What Is a Food Desert?

A food desert is a low-income geographic area where a significant number of people have little or no access to nutritious and affordable food products, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. In these underserved communities,  many residents have no choice other than to buy processed foods from their nearest corner store, convenience store, or fast food outlet. 

Food deserts are also referred to as areas that are low-income and low-access. A census tract (a type of area within a county) is classed as low-income if more than 20 percent of residents live in poverty or if the average household income is less than 80 percent of that of the state or metropolitan area.  A census tract is classed as low-access if a minimum of 500 people or 33 percent of the population have to travel more than one mile (in an urban area) or 10 miles (in a rural area) to reach their nearest supermarket or large grocery store. 

Food insecurity is a social justice issue. Income and other social factors aside, predominantly Black neighborhoods are more likely to lack access to supermarkets than predominantly white neighborhoods. People who have disabilities are also disproportionately affected

Why Do Food Deserts Exist?

Rather than occurring naturally, as the term could suggest, “food deserts” exist because of systemic racial inequality. For that reason, many food justice advocates say that “food apartheid” is a more accurate term. Areas lack access to reasonably priced groceries because of a long history of racist policies and practices.

Meat and dairy subsidies are key reasons  why nutritious foods are often unaffordable for people in low-income communities. Instead of being used to make healthy, plant-based whole foods less expensive, billions of taxpayer dollars are used to prop up factory farming and facilitate the overconsumption of animal-based foods.  Of the $38 billion that the U.S. government pours into commercial agriculture each year, just 0.4 percent is used to subsidize the farming of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

What Causes Food Deserts in Urban Areas?

Low-income areas are faced with a lack of food options for a number of reasons, many of which stem from discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Causes of urban food deserts are explored below and include a shortage of stores selling healthy foods, difficulty accessing transport, and poverty.

A Low Number of Food retailers

Not only are many major food retailers reluctant to open stores in underserved communities, but they also tend to move their existing stores to wealthier areas. This practice, known as “supermarket redlining,” leaves people with limited options for where to buy inexpensive food. 

High Levels of Unemployment

A lack of investment in these communities makes it difficult for many residents to find jobs. Someone who lives in a food desert is more likely to be unemployed than someone who lives in a regular census tract. High levels of unemployment force people further into poverty, making it more difficult for them to pay for transport and food.

Higher Rates of Abandoned or Vacant Homes

Food deserts generally have higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes than other areas. Empty houses can negatively impact the local economy, which may make food retailers more reluctant to open stores in the area. Research suggests that the negative impact of boarded-up vacant homes on access to nutritious foods disproportionately affects predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Inadequate Access to Transportation

Inadequate access to transportation is a major contributor to food apartheid. For people who don’t own a car, can't afford to pay for public transport, or have mobility issues, regularly traveling to the nearest supermarket or large grocery store is impractical at best.

Low Income 

Areas affected by high rates of poverty are more likely to be food deserts than other areas. In underserved communities, the cost of healthy food is perhaps an even bigger problem than its lack of availability. Any fresh fruits and vegetables that are available often seem out of reach to people on a low income who feel as though fringe foods (e.g. fast food and convenience store food) are their only option. 

Very Large or Very Sparse Populations 

Areas facing food apartheid are generally less populated than other areas. The further apart people live, the further many will have to travel to get to a food store. For some people, the nearest supermarket is more than 20 miles away.

What Are the Effects of Food Deserts?

Nutritious food is one of our most basic human needs. The negative effects of unequal access to food include poor diets, hunger, and health issues. 

Poor Diets

For many households in low-income, low-access communities, fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury. Most of the time, the simplest (or only) option is to eat cheap fringe foods that may be filling but are high in fat, salt, and sugar, and lack important nutrients. 

Hunger

Because of food apartheid, millions of people do not know where their next meal is coming from. In food-insecure households, it is sadly not uncommon for adults, particularly women, to skip meals in order to make the small amount of food that they have last longer so that kids don’t go hungry.

Health Issues 

Because diet and health are inextricably linked, people in food deserts are prone to developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. Food insecurity can also impact mental health by causing anxiety, depression, and feelings of shame.  

How Many Food Deserts Are There in America?

The exact number of food deserts is hard to quantify and varies depending on what measures are used. As of 2015, 9,245 of the 72,864 census tracts in the U.S. (12.7 percent) were classed as low-income and low-access, according to USDA data. 

How Many Americans Live in Food Deserts?

The USDA estimates that 18.8 million people in the U.S. (around 6 percent of the population) reside in low-income tracts that are further than one mile (for urban areas) or 10 miles (for rural areas) from their nearest supermarket. If you take into account those in low-income census tracts who would have to travel more than half a mile to reach the closest supermarket, that figure rises to 53.6 million people (around 17 percent of the population). 

What Are Some Examples of Food Deserts?

As of 2015, Mississippi had the highest concentration of food deserts in the U.S., with 31 percent of its census tracts classed as low-income and low-access.  Following Mississippi were New Mexico at 27 percent and Arkansas at 26 percent. Food apartheid, however, stretches far beyond the borders of these three states and can be found in numerous places across the country, including in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. 

Chicago

Many of Chicago’s food deserts are found in South Deering, West Pullman, Pullman, and New City. The total number of supermarkets across the city increased between 2007 and 2014, but this did little to solve food apartheid. In Chicago, neighborhoods that are predominantly Black have the most limited access to food. 

Los Angeles 

In the Antelope Valley and South LA, one-third of census tracts are not only considered food deserts, but also “food assistance deserts,” according to a 2021 study. This means that as well as not having reasonable access to supermarkets, these areas are without local food assistance providers. 

Among those working to end food apartheid in South LA is longtime vegan Olympia Auset, founder of the low-cost, organic pop-up grocery SÜPRMARKT. 

New York City

Between 2018 and 2020, food insecurity affected an estimated 1.2 million New York City residents. Many of the city’s food deserts are located in Black and low-income neighborhoods in East and Central Harlem and in North and Central Brooklyn. 

What Are the Potential Solutions for Food Deserts?

Potential solutions to food insecurity in so-called “food deserts” include farmers' markets, community gardens, and financial support for low-income families. Above all, ending food apartheid requires the deliberate dismantling of the various systemic injustices that perpetuate white supremacy and the cycle of poverty.

Farmers’ Markets, Arabbers, and Roadside Carts 

Farmers' markets, arabbers, and roadside carts can provide communities with the opportunity to purchase fresh, high-quality seasonal fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. In some neighborhoods, mobile farmers' markets are delivering food to elderly customers who cannot travel. 

Community Gardens 

Urban spaces can be turned into community gardens, allowing residents and volunteers to grow inexpensive, nutritious, organic vegetables for their families and wider communities. These green spaces can also help people to gain valuable skills and knowledge while building connections with their community and with the food they eat.

Federal Resources for Low-Income Households

When used to provide financial support to households and invest in local communities, federal resources can help lift people out of poverty. An example of this is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, which helps those who are eligible for it to pay for food. 

Government Policies 

Having historically contributed to the problem, government policies must now play a key role in ending food apartheid and building a food system that provides everyone with equal access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Proposed solutions include adopting a human rights approach, making financial support more easily accessible to people, and creating more job opportunities. 

Nongovernmental Food Assistance Programs 

Without the help of Food Assistance Programs run by charities, non-profit organizations, and local businesses, many families would go hungry. But while food pantries and food kitchens are necessary for meeting people’s immediate needs, they are not a long-term solution to the wider problem of food insecurity. 

Surplus Food Sharing 

Millions of households are struggling to access nutritious food, yet 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. goes to waste. Surplus food sharing allows perfectly edible unwanted groceries that are at risk of ending up in landfills to be distributed to the families who need them. A number of apps and websites exist to provide a platform for businesses and individuals to share their leftover food with others. 

Grocery Deliveries

Online food shopping provides a way for people in urban neighborhoods who cannot easily get to a supermarket or large grocery store to buy healthy, inexpensive food and have it delivered to their doorstep. However, home delivery can mean added cost and is not always available in rural areas. 

Conclusion

The problem of food deserts disproportionately affects people of the global majority and should therefore be recognized for what it is: food apartheid. There is more than enough food to go around, yet systemic injustice is preventing millions of people in low-income communities from accessing affordable, nutritious options such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

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