What do People Eat in Food Deserts?

Food deserts are areas found in urban places where people lack access to nutritious and affordable food usually available through grocery stores, healthy food producers, and farmers’ markets. This may be because of the location of grocery stores (generally at an inconvenient distance from the communities) and the limited variety of food options.

To understand the factors that create food deserts and the type of solutions that may be available, checkout the infographic below created by the University of New England’s Online Masters in Social Work degree program.


What do people eat in food deserts?

Food Deserts in Numbers

People who live in geographic areas in the U.S. categorized as food deserts are generally low income and do not have grocery stores and supermarkets nearby. Instead, corner shops and convenience stores that traditionally have limited choices of fresh foods and sell healthy options at a higher cost than larger grocery stores, instead sell cheaper foods with a longer shelf life that are nutritionally poor.

The U.S. has 65,000 census tracts and 10% qualify as food deserts. There are about 13.5 million people who reside in these tracts and of those approximately 82% live in urban areas that do not have access to grocery stores within one mile. The other 18% reside in rural areas where there are no supermarkets or grocery stores within 10 miles. Additionally, it is estimated that 23 million people reside more than a mile from a market or grocery store, but do not have ready access to private or public transportation

The Problem with Food Deserts

The absence of grocery stores in economically strained areas is in part due to the low potential for profits and expansion of grocery stores and supermarkets. From 2011 until 2015, around 10,300 stores were opened by the nation’s top 75 food retailers. Of these stores, 2,434 were grocery stores. Out of these grocery stores, only 250 were built in regions known as food deserts. Another key point is that small markets and corner stores sell fresh food at higher prices.

Another factor that leads to food deserts is inefficient land use and planning, and lack of investments from businesses. As of yet, there is minimum support for urban agriculture in low-income areas. One solution would be to update zoning codes to allow for greenhouses and community and commercial gardens as way to bring fresh produce to these regions. Furthermore, providing incentives to schools and state agencies to patronize and purchase local food can help encourage increased growth in this industry.

Just as corner and convenience stores are part of food deserts, fast food restaurants, are also prevalent. They are able to sell food at more affordable prices, thanks to bulk purchase of raw materials and ingredients, standardization, and automation. The number of fast food restaurants that operate in food desert regions is about 2.5 times more than in non-food desert areas.

Finally, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the federal aid program that offers food stamps, may not provide more opportunities for residents to consume healthy food because quite simply, nutritionally valuable food is more expensive. For individuals and families who rely on food stamps, paying more for meals is just not an option.

Reducing the Effects of Food Deserts

Social workers can play a significant role in minimizing how food deserts affect the health of low-income residents. Some beneficial approaches include:

Modifying the SNAP Program to Adapt to Users

The SNAP program plays an important role in helping residents of food desert areas find better food options. Implementing certain changes in the program can make a significant difference, such as making health food more accessible to people who shop at convenience and corner stores.

Offering Incentives

Incentives can also be used to make buying and selling healthy foods more attractive. SNAP users, for example, may be offered incentives if they purchase fruits and vegetables. Incentives for grocery stores and supermarkets should also be offered if they sell milk, produce and a variety of healthy food options. Although healthier food items do carry a higher price point at grocery stores, incentivizing their availability will encourage businesses to offer them more often.

Healthy Living Education

Better information about maintaining a healthy diet should also be promoted, particularly among children. Local governments and agencies, for example, could sponsor food education programs that will teach kids about the process of producing and preparing fresh produce from urban farms, then providing these foods to kids as free lunches. Working with local produce farmers can also improve the diversity of food pantries, hence increasing the availability of a variety of healthy and appetizing food options.

Social workers can also work within food desert communities to identify the strengths and resources already available that could lead to better access to healthy foods. Additionally, advocacy on behalf of these communities can include local, state, and federal advocacy to support incentives for food producers and providers to locate in these areas.

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