What is a Food Desert?  

 Food deserts are regions where people have limited access to healthy and nutritious foods due to factors like distance and affordability. 

Key Takeaways

  • People living in food deserts may be at higher risk of developing chronic health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

  • Efforts to address food deserts include building community gardens, hosting farmers’ markets, implementing policy changes and tackling the social determinants of health.

What is a food desert

What Qualifies as a Food Desert?

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area “more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery in urban areas, and more than 10 miles in rural areas.” Six percent of the U.S. population lives more than one mile or ten miles from the nearest grocery store in urban and rural areas, respectively.

But, proximity is not the sole determinant of a food desert. In urban food deserts, smaller food retailers such as convenience stores and gas stations exist, but they typically lack fresh produce and healthy groceries. Urban food deserts commonly contain a large number of fast-food restaurants. So while food may be available, it may be void of nutrients essential to a balanced diet.

Even if a low-income neighborhood has a supermarket, if healthy food options are too expensive, residents may not afford them. Areas that are at greatest risk of becoming food deserts include those with high unemployment and poverty rates, very dense or sparse populations and communities with inadequate access to transportation. 

Who’s Most Affected? 

Food deserts hit low-income neighborhoods populated by ethnic minorities the hardest, while wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods are less affected. 

How do food deserts impact health?

Inaccessibility to healthy, affordable food often forces people to rely on cheaper and more abundant fast-food restaurants and corner stores. Products in such places largely consist of processed foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars and sodium. This can contribute to many chronic health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Is there anything being done to help?

Building community gardens, hosting farmers’ markets, improving public transportation and passing local laws that incentivize food retailers to establish shops in food deserts combat the issue. 

Simply building new food stores in a food desert may not have a significant impact on people’s food-buying choices, indicating that behavioral factors need to be considered too.

In response to these concerns, the USDA created the Community Food Projects grant program, which funds sustainable food projects to help low-income communities gain access to affordable, nutritious groceries. One of its aims is to provide community members with education and training on food preparation and nutrition. This is a promising initiative, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that people, no matter their income level or location, can access the food they need in order to be healthy. 

“Food Apartheid,” What’s That? 

There’s an ongoing movement to say “food apartheid” instead of “food desert.” The latter implies a desolate, empty neighborhood even when the neighborhood is vibrant and full of life. On the other hand, “food apartheid” encompasses the big picture: the whole food system, race, geography, faith and economics.  

Activist and community organizer Karen Washington said it well in an interview with Guernica: 

You say ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?

So while a lack of access to healthy food defines a “food desert,” “food apartheid” captures the deeper-rooted issues causing the inaccessibility to nutritional foods.


Outside the Huddle


Reviewed by Geetika Rao, MPH | Edited by Nidhi Mahagaokar, MPH | Fact checked by Jared Dashevsky, M.Eng