food desert

What Is A Food Desert?

When it’s time for you to grocery shop, where do you go? Do you patronize a local market, a corner store, or a big grocery store with lots of options? According to the USDA, approximately 54.4 million Americans live in what’s called a food desert. [1] But what is a food desert?

Definition of a food desert

A food desert is loosely defined as an area in which residents don’t have access to nutritious food at an affordable price. Nutritious food is a broad term, but tends to relate to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In a food desert, there are few accessible grocery stores or farmers’ markets. People find themselves turning to corner stores and convenience stores for food, making it harder to shop for and afford healthy foods.

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Most food deserts impact urban environments. Approximately 82% of food deserts are found in cities, but 335,000 rural Americans live in food deserts as well – more than 20 miles from the closest supermarket. [2]

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Food deserts can be found anywhere in the United States, but they are primarily found in lower-income states in the South and Midwest, like Louisiana and Mississippi. States like Oregon and New Hampshire have a relatively low rate of food deserts comparatively.

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Who is impacted?

Food deserts impact everyone, even if you don’t live in one. Individuals who are subjected to a life out of reach of healthy food are more likely to suffer illnesses caused by poor nutrition, which adds a burden to public and private health systems. This added burden has a negative impact on everyone. In terms of direct impact, lower-income individuals are most commonly subjected to life in food deserts.

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Not only is the food often less nutritious in a food desert, but it tends to be more expensive than elsewhere. The USDA estimates that families in food deserts pay as much as 37% more for the same food than those who do not live in food deserts. This is likely due to the added shipping costs to bring products into the city.

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How can we end food deserts?

Eradicating the phenomenon of food deserts is a huge task, especially when you consider that nearly 20% of the American public lives in a food desert. But there are things that we can do to reverse the trend of food desertification of urban and rural areas. Taking action like improving public transportation to grocery stores, encouraging farmers to participate in farmers markets, and establishing new urban gardens all help to alleviate the strain food deserts put on our society.

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Public policy can also help solve the problem. Encouraging local law makers to provide incentives for new health food and grocery stores to set up shop helps create a more diverse dietary palate for residents in food deserts.

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Gardening at home, even if you have only enough space for a handful of plants, also helps improve the nutrition of your community starting right at home. And if you plant high-yield vegetables, like zucchini, there’s a good chance you’ll be feeding half of the neighborhood!

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  1. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/documentation/
  2. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2010/march/access-to-affordable-nutritious-food-is-limited-in-food-deserts/
Thomas Nelson
Environmental Advocate
Thomas is an environmental advocate currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. In his spare time, he enjoys experiencing the outdoors, raising chickens and ducks, and reading about current environmental issues. Despite slight colorblindness, his favorite color is green.
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