A food desert is an area, usually an urban or rural low-income neighborhood, where residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The term “food desert” is used to describe a geographic area where it is difficult for residents to purchase affordable or good-quality fresh food, due to the lack of grocery stores, supermarkets, or other sources of healthy and affordable food options.

These areas often have a high concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which typically sell processed and unhealthy food options. This lack of access to healthy food can contribute to a higher prevalence of diet-related health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among residents of food deserts.

Food deserts can be caused by a variety of factors, including poverty, lack of transportation, and zoning laws that make it difficult for grocery stores to open in certain areas. Some initiatives have been taken to overcome this problem like community gardens, mobile markets, and incentivizing grocery stores to open in these areas.

Many communities considered to be food deserts are also known as “food swamps” which means that they have a large presence of fast food restaurants and convenience stores that provide many options but most all of which are unhealthy. Because individuals living in these areas have limited access to healthy meals they get too many of their daily calories from packaged ultra-processed food that are high in fat and sugar content. Their poor diets make many extrememly susceptible to poor nutrition and they are more likely to suffer from chronic malnutrition and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity. This is especially true for low-income households in dense urban communities.

The U.S. Government refers to food desert regions as low-income and low-access (LILA) census tracts. Food deserts can occur in both rural, low populated areas (low-access) where it isn’t profitable for retailers to invest and in dense, urban communities with higher poverty (low-income). Specifically, the USDA defines “low-income” as “a tract with either a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, or a median family income less than 80 percent of the State-wide median family income; or a tract in a metropolitan area with a median family income less than 80 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area median family income”. “Low access” is defined as having “at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, living more than one-half mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store”. There are some census tracts that are classified as low-access and low-income.

Some facts about food deserts:

  • According to the United States Department of Agriculture 11 to 27 percent of the U.S. population lived in low-income (LI) and low-access (LA) census tracts in 2019.
  • Studies show that residents living in low-income census tracts may be 10 times more likely than those living in higher income neighborhoods to experience a lack of access to nutritious foods.
  • On average, in the 50 largest US metro areas, roughly 17.7% of predominately black neighborhoods had limited access to supermarkets, compared to 7.6% of largely white neighborhoods, according to an analysis conducted for CNN Business by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit community development organization.
  • Food deserts are found in both urban and rural areas and disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.

Some Resources

The USDA’s Food Desert Locator: This tool allows users to search for food deserts by state, county, and census tract.

The Food Trust: This organization works to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food. They have a lot of resources and information available on food deserts and their efforts to combat them.

The National Cooperative Grocers Association: This organization supports food co-ops and their efforts to bring healthy food to underserved communities. They have a lot of information available on food co-ops and their efforts to combat food deserts.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food desert page – dedicated to food access and food deserts, including mapping data, research, and resources for communities and organizations working to improve access to healthy food

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) – a national nonprofit organization that aims to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States. They have a lot of research, reports, and resources on food deserts and food access