Food deserts are regions where people have limited access to healthful and affordable food. This may be due to having a low income or having to travel farther to find healthful food options.

Without access to healthful foods, people living in food deserts may be at higher risk of diet-related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Several government bodies are now funding projects to prevent areas from becoming food deserts and to improve people’s access to food in existing food deserts.

Keep reading to learn more about food deserts and how they impact health.

A woman who lives in one of the many food deserts takes a subway home from the grocery store.Share on Pinterest
Around 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts.

Food deserts are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthful foods. This may be due to having a limited income or living far away from sources of healthful and affordable food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) define a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.

In order to qualify as a food desert, an area must also meet certain other criteria. In urban areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 1 mile from the nearest large grocery store. In rural areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store.

The USDA identified around 6,500 food deserts between 2000 and 2006. Experts estimate that around 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low income areas that are farther than 1 mile to the nearest large grocery store. Of these people, 11.5 million have low incomes.

A 2012 USDA report on food deserts suggests that regions with the following characteristics are more likely to become food deserts:

  • very large or very sparse populations
  • low income
  • high levels of unemployment
  • inadequate access to transportation
  • a low number of food retailers providing fresh produce at affordable prices

The report also notes that rural areas located in the West, Midwest, and South of the U.S. are much more likely to be food deserts than rural areas located in the Northeast. This may be because rural areas in the Northeast tend to be closer to urban areas containing grocery stores.

According to the report, rural areas with growing populations may have a lower risk of becoming food deserts.

Experts have not yet reached an agreement regarding the characteristics of the populations that live within food deserts.

According to the 2012 USDA report, some research suggests that neighborhoods consisting primarily of low income minority ethnic groups have limited access to supermarkets compared with wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

The review also cites research suggesting that some low income neighborhoods have a greater number of grocery stores and live closer to these stores than wealthier people. In such cases, the issue may be the affordability of the foods rather than their proximity.

In rural areas, the most important predictor of food access is lack of transportation. This means that people who do not have their own bicycle or vehicle and lack access to public transportation are more likely to lack access to healthful foods.

Since researchers have not reached a consensus on the characteristics of the populations affected by food deserts, further investigations are necessary. Such investigations may help policymakers identify areas at risk of becoming food deserts so that they can implement better access to healthful foods.

Maintaining a healthful diet involves:

According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthful diet should include the following foods:

  • a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fat-free or low fat dairy
  • protein-rich foods, including:
    • seafood
    • lean meats and poultry
    • eggs
    • legumes
    • nuts and seeds
    • soy products
  • healthful oils

People living in food deserts may have limited access to supermarkets and other food retailers offering healthful and affordable foods. Even when convenience stores and small grocers stock healthful foods, they are often too expensive for people with a low income to afford.

People living in food deserts may therefore be more reliant on food retailers or fast food restaurants offering a more affordable but limited variety of foods.

The lack of access to healthful foods and easy access to fast foods may be linked to poor diets that are high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthful fats. This can contribute to diet-related conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Some of the health effects of living in a food desert include:

  • a higher incidence of obesity
  • increased prevalence of diabetes
  • other weight-related conditions, especially in children

Many food deserts also provide limited or unaffordable healthcare services. This contributes to negative health outcomes for people living in these areas.

People use a number of terms to describe a population’s access to food. The sections below outline some other examples.

Food swamps

A food swamp is a region that provides adequate access to healthful and affordable food, as well as an overabundance of less healthful food options.

In Canadian urban areas, food swamps are more common than food deserts.

Food mirages

A food mirage describes an area where people live close to grocery stores offering a variety of healthful foods but cannot afford those foods.

Because of this, people must travel farther to find healthful foods that are within budget.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity refers to limited or insecure access to food because of financial constraints. Families and people with low incomes may not have enough money to afford healthful foods.

Policymakers are actively looking for solutions to improve access to healthful foods in food deserts throughout the US.

The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program fund sustainable food projects that help low income communities gain access to nutritious and culturally acceptable diets.

These projects also address broader economic, social, and environmental issues surrounding the food system. Some of the issues that the Community Food Projects aim to address include:

  • increasing the availability of healthful, locally sourced foods through:
    • affordable grocery stores
    • affordable markets
    • backyard and community gardens
    • food assistance programs
    • food buying clubs
  • encouraging healthful dietary habits by providing education and training on food production, preparation, and nutrition
  • enrolling eligible residents into government nutrition programs
  • increasing access to local farmers markets
  • promoting safe and fair farm worker conditions
  • supporting sustainable agricultural practices that protect the air, water, soil, and habitats
  • supporting food industry entrepreneurs
  • celebrating and honoring diverse food cultures
  • encouraging residents to participate in food system planning
  • giving residents a say on food-related decisions that people make in government

Food deserts are areas where people are unable to gain access to healthful foods. They are a major issue affecting millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe.

Experts suggest that living in a food desert may put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related conditions.

Community Food Projects are working to improve food systems in food deserts. Their overall aim is to help increase residents’ access to healthful foods.