What is a Food Desert?

Over 11 million Americans live more than a mile away from affordable, nutritious foods.

Trolley filled with groceries in wholesale store Landscape
Food deserts lack access to nutritious food like fruit and vegetables. Smile / Getty Images

In recent years, food deserts have been increasingly featured in the news. There have been stories about planting fruit trees in food desert areas and even a floating barge in NYC that, pre-pandemic, played home to a food forest from which nearby residents could forage. (While closed now, a new iteration of the barge program is being hatched in Brooklyn.)

But what exactly is a food desert?

Food deserts are generally classified as geographic regions where people have few or limited options to purchase nutritious and affordable foods like vegetables and fruits. Food deserts disproportionately affect low-income areas far from supermarkets because these places also often lack transportation infrastructure. While residents in food deserts may have easier access to convenience stores and fast food, they experience more challenges in shopping at large grocery stores that offer a more comprehensive selection of healthy foods at lower prices.

In cities, food deserts often fall along socioeconomic and racial demographic lines; in more rural areas, a lack of accessible transportation is the main factor. This disparity in food access and cost means that families, children, and communities living in food deserts may be at increased risk for obesity and other diet-related health issues, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A Brief History of Food Deserts

As part of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was asked to evaluate the causes and repercussions of decreased access to healthy food and recommend solutions. The following year, the agency released its initial results, which found that over 23 million Americans live in low-income areas located more than one mile from a food store, a term the USDA currently uses to include supercenters, supermarkets, and large grocery stores. Over 11 million people (around 4% of the total U.S. population) living in these regions are themselves low-income.

People living in food deserts travel significantly farther to purchase food at grocery stores compared to the national average, and these time/distance factors have remained relatively stable since the turn of the century. Regions lacking easy and affordable access to healthy foods, with high concentrations of fast food and food from convenience stores, are sometimes referred to by food equality activists as food swamps. In the past decade, the term “food desert” has been replaced by the term “low-income and low-access areas,” with the USDA’s Economic Research Service citing that this language more accurately describes the statistical measurements currently cataloged in the Food Access Research Atlas

Where are Food Deserts Located?

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, every state in the United States has food deserts, with the agency identifying over 6,500 food desert areas in 2012. To be considered a food desert, a region (in the case of the USDA’s measurement, a census tract) must have a poverty rate that exceeds 20%, or the median family income must not exceed 80% of the income of the state or metro area. Food deserts also have populations where at least 33% (or 500 residents) live more than one mile (for urban areas) or 10 miles (for rural areas) from the nearest food store.

A comprehensive USDA report from 2012 found that the higher the poverty rate, the greater likelihood that a region will be designated a low-income, low-access area, regardless of its urban or rural geography. These regions generally have smaller populations, with residents having lower incomes, lower education levels, higher unemployment rates, and higher rates of vacant or abandoned homes. Compared to other parts of the country, people living in the Northeast are likely to live closer to a food store, while growing rural regions are also less likely to be considered low-income, low-access areas.

Food Deserts Around the World

Sadly, food insecurity and limited or inadequate access to nutritious food is a global problem, affecting both developed and developing nations alike. How food is purchased varies significantly from nation to nation, with food stores dominating Western countries. In the Global South, small vendors and merchants are the primary sources of food.

Causes of Food Deserts

While the existing literature on the lack of accessible, affordable foods has not reached a consensus on the root causes of food deserts, several mitigating factors regularly appear. Urban areas lacking access to fresh foods are generally divided by racial and economic lines. For rural residents who must travel many miles to the nearest store, a lack of access to a vehicle and limited or nonexistent public transportation contributes to food accessibility challenges. 

Both market conditions and consumer behavior patterns may contribute to some Americans' lack of affordable fresh foods. Understanding these integrated issues is crucial to designing new governmental policies that ensure greater access for more people. There's also the question of limited versus inadequate access to healthy foods, and more research is needed to determine this conclusively.

The Cost of Healthy Food

Income matters greatly when it comes to purchasing healthy foods. A meta-analysis from Brown University in 2013 found that diets rich in more nutritious foods cost around $1.50 more per day. For individuals and families living paycheck to paycheck, even with additional funds from government subsidies like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this cost differential can significantly impact their food choices – regardless of the debate as to what exactly constitutes “healthy” food.

Consumers who can purchase from large grocery stores and supermarkets benefit from economies of scale. Chain stores generally offer year-round operations, longer business hours, and lower prices than non-chain stores. Time poverty, especially for families with small children, can often discourage low-income people from purchasing foods that must be prepared, making processed or fast food more appealing.

The local economics of supercenters presents another complicated dimension to the food desert problem. According to research from 2020, when mega-retailers like Walmart enter a low-income, low-access area, a significant percentage of local supermarkets and small shops face closure within a year, forcing communities to choose between keeping local businesses alive and having less expensive and easy access to a wide variety of foods.

Racial Inequality

With the exception of high-density urban areas, regions with larger minority populations are more likely to be designated as food deserts. Likewise, as minority populations decrease, so does the likelihood the region will be considered a food desert, inextricably linking race with access to healthy foods.

However, a 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University found that, regardless of ethnicity or race, the number of nearby supermarkets decreased as poverty increased in a region, while the number of grocery and convenience stores increased. But when poverty levels were equivalent across Black, Hispanic, and white neighborhoods, predominantly Black, low-income communities had the fewest supermarkets, suggesting that these neighborhoods are the most intensely impacted and should be first in line for interventions. Researchers noted that these findings were specific to urban areas, indicating that solutions should be implemented on a local, not universal, level. 

Lack of Business Investment

When large food stores consider prospective locations, low-income areas can appear to be “too risky” of an investment. Whether this risk is substantiated or simply perceived, more economically depressed areas can increase a business’ insurance and security costs. Even public utility challenges, like poorly maintained roads, can prevent corporations from setting up shops in neighborhoods that most need their goods and services, according to Harvard Business Review. These market conditions have a substantial effect on food accessibility for high-poverty regions.

Food Deserts, Public Health, and Food Insecurity

Like housing and health, food security is an essential measure of individual and family well-being. Areas designated as food deserts are also likely to have limited access to other services like health care, banking institutions, accessible and affordable transportation, and even recreational areas. Compounded by increased food prices in these areas, it’s no surprise that in 2008, around 6% of Americans surveyed reported that they didn’t get the food they wanted or needed, with half also citing a lack of funds to purchase healthy foods.

As of late 2022, over 10% of American households experienced some form of food insecurity, down from a peak of nearly 15% in 2011. This connection between overall public health and food insecurity, rather than lack of access to healthy foods, may help explain the increase in obesity levels.

The Environmental Impact of Food Deserts

The effects of climate change, including droughts and foodborne illnesses, can threaten food production, ultimately increasing costs, especially for the world’s poorest people. Western nations are not immune to these disruptions; the U.S. saw a 10% increase in grocery prices in 2022. As Treehugger’s Katherine Martinko has reported, these costs don’t even begin to reflect the true costs of American food. Production, processing, and retailing tally up to over a billion dollars annually, but that number doesn’t account for the associated healthcare costs, nor does it include the food system’s contribution to pollution, carbon emissions, and decreases in biodiversity. All in all, although Americans have, on the surface, some of the cheapest food on the planet, they spend over $3 trillion annually on this unsustainable and unjust food system.

As the Society of Environmental Journalists notes, food deserts often function as the “canary in the coal mine” for how economic and environmental uncertainty can affect food supplies and consequently the most vulnerable Americans. 

How to Combat Food Deserts

Concern over the dramatic rise in diabetes and obesity over the last 30 to 40 years, respectively, has drawn increased national attention to these diet-related issues, most saliently in children. The USDA nods to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and its focus on healthy food as part of the movement to address these public health struggles. There are a number of efforts underway, both public and private, to address these health and economic disparities.

Government Intervention

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, part of the USDA’s Rural Development prorgrams, seeks to build more equitable food systems in low-income areas through quality job creation and community revitalization. Government-run and -subsidized programs like this, in addition to new zoning policies, can help bring more food into low-access neighborhoods through both large grocery stores and small businesses.

Additionally, programs that expand where SNAP benefits can be used – including small stores in urban areas and online grocery delivery services in rural regions – could provide easier access to food for more people.

Treating Food as Community Development

People living in food deserts don’t need to depend on big box stores to provide the food they need to thrive. Community gardens, farmers’ markets, and celebrations of and access to culturally specific foods can all help promote local food production in both urban and rural areas while providing jobs to the residents of that area. 

Small, locally owned stores can serve as hubs for community gatherings where neighborhoods can purchase healthy food and even have the potential to become education centers where residents can learn about nutrition, experiment with cooking, and connect with their neighbors. These programs could be funded on a local level to address the needs of each community. As legislators look to future solutions, partnering with the communities most affected by a lack of equitable food access will be essential to long-term success.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is meant by a food desert?

    Food deserts – now officially called low-income, low-access areas – describe regions where large proportions of residents face obstacles (high prices, inadequate transportation, lack of nearby retailers) to purchasing affordable and nutritious food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Where are food deserts in the US?

    Low-income, low-access regions exist in every state of the union. Residents outside the Northeast face the most difficulty accessing food stores. Still, people living in both urban and rural areas in the United States can experience food access challenges.

View Article Sources
  1. Dutko, Paula, et al. “Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts.” USDA Economic Research Service, Aug. 2012.

  2. Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” USDA Economic Research Service, June 2009.

  3. “Food Security and Nutrition Assistance.” USDA ERS - Food Security and Nutrition Assistance, 18 Oct. 2022.

  4. Food Inflation in the United States (1968-2023): US Inflation Calculator.” US Inflation Calculator, 12 Jan. 2023.