Food Deserts in America: Not Just a Geographical Issue

What are food deserts?

The phrase food desert might conjure up a lot of conflicting thoughts. And there are an equal number of ways to define a food desert. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) determines if a geographical location is a food desert by two criteria: poverty and geographical distance to a supermarket. If an urban community is greater than one mile away from a large grocery store or supermarket or if a community’s median income is well below the city’s average, it is considered to be in a food desert; the same is true for rural communities if the community is farther than 10 miles away from a large grocery store. You can see if your friends or family live in a food desert according to the federal government by looking at this map. Admittedly, the map is not perfect; many have noted there are other factors that may prohibit someone from having access to fresh, healthy food at an affordable price. Yet the tool is useful to get a first-glance understanding of the problem in America.

Food deserts disproportionately affect people of color. There are historical, economic, and political factors that cause this health disparity. Predominantly Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer supermarkets and many more fast food restaurants, compared to neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

The list of health problems for all people, but especially for children, caused by poor nutrition is immense. 

Food Deserts in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, in 2004, was one of the earliest states to adopt a program to combat food deserts. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative (FFFI) was hailed as a success: when the initial program ended in 2010 because all the funds had been dispersed, hundreds of thousands of kids and adults had greater access to affordable healthy foods. Nevertheless, the state recognized that more work is still needed, as the PA COVID-19 relief confronts the problem head on. Their website states: “In recognition of the disproportionate impacts of both COVID-19 and food apartheid on communities made up of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and especially Black and African American communities, prioritization will be given to those businesses that are owned by and serve low-income BIPOC communities.”

You can see all the grocers in PA who received grant money as of September 2020 here. In Lancaster County, four stores received money for a combined total of approximately $610,000.

Problems We Still Face

Our communities around the country still face food access disparities based on race, economic, and other factors, despite the success of Pennsylvania and other states’ initiatives. One problem that still persists is what researchers call “supermarket redlining.” This occurs when large supermarkets choose not to locate grocery stores in low-income, urban areas because of some perceived negative business consequences that often do not occur in more suburban neighborhoods. One study mapped the existence of supermarket redlining in Hartford, Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, they found that the phenomenon was linked to many negative consequences, the biggest problems being food insecurity and poorer health outcomes in urban neighborhoods.

Although the increase of food delivery services—a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions—can reduce some of the geographical problems associated with food deserts, the economic barriers will still persist. The costs to pay for delivery are expensive, which only limits the amount of healthy food a family can buy.

I encourage readers to think about your own access to food and how your communities can increase its access to healthy meals at an affordable price. One interesting method is a system in Michigan that offers “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables. Although it does not address the geographical problems associated with food deserts, the voucher helps defray the costs of fresh, healthy foods, and the program has seen lots of success. It is a very innovative way of thinking about diet as a means to proactively prevent future health problems.

Regardless of what we call it, food access disparities are detrimental not just to individuals, but to entire communities. Understanding the factors that contribute to unequal access and testing new ways to reduce food insecurity is the start to improving the health of an entire community in one important way.

Further Reading

  • Dutko, Paula, Michele Ver Ploeg, and Tracey Farrigan. “Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts”, ERR-140, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, August 2012. [Link]
  • Eisenhauer, Elizabeth. “In poor health: Supermarket redlining and urban nutrition.” GeoJournal 53.2 (2001): 125-133.
  • Gleason, Sarina. “Flint inspires national nutrition prescription program in US Farm Bill.” MSU Today, 20 December 2018. [Link]
  • Karpyn, Allison, et al. “The changing landscape of food deserts.” UNSCN nutrition vol. 44 (2019): 46-53.
  • Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. COVID-19 Relief Fund. [Link].
  • Rhone, Alana, et al. “Low-Income and Low-Supermarket-Access Census Tracts, 2010-2015.” United States Department of Agriculture, January 2017. [Link]
  • New York Law School Racial Justice Project., “Unshared Bounty: How Structural Racism Contributes to the Creation and Persistence of Food Deserts. (with American Civil Liberties Union).” (2012). Racial Justice Project. Book 3. [Link].
  • Walker, Renee E., Christopher R. Keane, and Jessica G. Burke. “Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature.” Health & place 16.5 (2010): 876-884.

The resources on this site should not replace professional medical care. Readers should consult their medical providers to discuss their healthcare needs.