The Untold Story of Food Deserts

Images Drawn By: Ana Aguilar

Written by Mayella Vasquez | Edited by: Jessica Tishue

Thirty-eight-year-old Cindy Thompson lives in a food desert in Henrico County, Virginia, with her three young children.  Thoughts of how the four of them will live off her salary keeps her up at night. Each morning, Cindy sits up in bed and rubs her swollen legs.  By the time she walks to the kitchen, Cindy is completely out of breath.  The fridge and pantry are nearly empty, she eats whatever she finds. 

Today is a shopping day. Which means, Cindy needs to budget the price of the bus fare, groceries, and check the mail to see if she can find any coupons.  She scurries through these tasks because trips like these take all day. 

This same reality is lived by 23.5 million Americans.

Fresh food is a luxury for many in places like the Bayview neighborhood in  San Francisco, Peoplestown in Atlanta, and Avalon Park in Chicago.  Fast- food chains and obesity are commodities. Diabetic children who are hindered before they begin, heart attacks taking lives, and starving families are a part of what defines food deserts and has since the 1960s and 70s  (8, 27). Corporate profit maximization, inequality, and poverty are all catalysts of a food desert. However, for decades, these issues have been overlooked by legislatures, leaving 23.5 million Americans plagued by living in these forgotten places, known as food deserts (8,27,31).

Food deserts are nutritionally underserved communities that exist everywhere in the United States (1,28).


Characterized by  (8):

1 – Lower-income communities that lack access to healthy food

2 – People who are at higher risk for diseases such as: heart disease, diabetes, obesity,  and high blood pressure.

3 – Are often communities of color.

4 – Are found in both Urban and Rural Areas


Food deserts are nutritionally underserved communities that exist everywhere in the United States (1,28).

Characterized by  (8):

1 – Lower-income communities that lack access to healthy food

2 – People who are at higher risk for diseases such as: heart disease, diabetes, obesity,  and high blood pressure.

3 – Are often communities of color.  

4 – Are found in both Urban and Rural Areas

In a country that stands for opportunity, innovation, and equality–why has the conversation of food deserts started 40 years after the problem first took root?  (28). 


In the 1960s and 70s, when middle-class families moved to the suburbs, supermarkets moved with them. Eventually, supermarkets adapted to these suburban communities and created large stores that became chain-wide operations with large suppliers and distribution networks. Large chain supermarkets were regularly stocked with an abundance of foods that were in high demand.  As these supermarkets scaled, their prices dropped, and they were able to provide discounts and specialty/organic food their customers demanded. Farmers’ markets, produce stands, and agriculture programs began to pop-up. (8)

When supermarkets left for the suburbs, rural and urban areas became food deserts.  As grocery stores moved out, convenience stores moved in.  Convenience stores became filled with overpriced staple foods, and an abundance of affordable and accessible junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes.   This became the only option for many people with the nearest grocery store more than an hour away.  

With a diet made up of junk food, diseases such as diseases related to nutrition surged.  (2) 


An interactive Atlas by the USDA demonstrates that this lifestyle that millions lead is found in food deserts across the United States.  Food deserts are both in rural and urban environments and are probably closer than one expects.


  1. Food Deserts Have Unhealthy Food Options:
  • Food deserts have a disproportionate over-abundance of fast food chains and corner stores that sell highly processed foods. (5) In fact, 1 in 8 Americans face food insecurity, 13 million of which are children. (30)
  • These readily-available food options are high in fats, sugars, and carbohydrates.  (6)

  1. Food Deserts Have Community Members Who at Higher Risk for Diseases:

Because diets in these food environments are made up almost entirely of processed foods, community members battle

unfavorable cardiovascular profiles.(6)  There is still a lot of research to be done on the association between a typical food desert diet– (high in fats, sugars, and carbohydrates).  However, there are cross-sectional studies that demonstrate that this type of diet leads to higher risks of  cardiovascular illnesses such as obesity, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension. (7)

  1. Food Deserts Are Lower-Income Communities That Lack Access to Healthy Food (8):
  • Food deserts are low income and have 1/2 as many supermarkets than more affluent communities.
  • There are 30% more convenience stores(that tend to have unhealthier food) in food desert zip codes than middle-income zip codes.  
  1. Food Deserts Are Often Communities of Color:

A study shows (8) that in…

  • Detroit’s and New Haven’s produce quality is lower in these low-income communities of color compared to more affluent or  racially mixed neighborhoods. Zip codes in predominantly black have about ½ the number of supermarket chains in comparison to areas of predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a as many.
  • In Albany, 80% of nonwhite residents cannot find low-fat milk or high-fiber bread in their neighborhoods. 
  • In Baltimore, 46% of lower-income neighborhoods have limited access to healthy food (based on a healthy food availability survey) compared to 13 percent of  higher-income neighborhoods.

The association between communities of colors and food deserts is often discussed.  Recently,  the use of the term “food apartheid”, is used in place of food desert.

  1. Food Deserts Are Found in both Urban and Rural Areas:
  • Though both regions are similarly challenged.  Urban food deserts tend to be challenged by a disproportionate ratio of processed food to healthy alternatives, while rural food deserts have difficulty accessing distant supermarkets. Thus, the issue of desert foods is a two-fold issue, one of providing healthy alternatives, and access to transportation.


1. Deteriorating Self-care:

Remember Cindy from the beginning of this blog? Just like Cindy, many others in food deserts experience deteriorating self-care. Specifically: 

An unhealthy diet can deteriorate the quality of one’s life, like Cindy’s. Many people in these communities have expressed living with chronic disease and being overweight.  Additionally, access to the resources to improve one’s self-care, such as dietary information, is often limited and overlooked.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy assessed that about  9 out of 10 adults in America lack the skills to manage their health and prevent disease. (9)

2. Health Restrictions: 

Those with food allergies and health restrictions are often the most affected in food deserts.  For example, if one has gluten or dairy intolerance, but does not have any alternatives to the foods they need and can eat, they are often plagued by a perpetually lowered quality of life and the life-threatening side effects of being forced to eat foods you are allergic to.  

3. Normal Life Costs:

  • The cost of public transportation affects how much food can be bought.
  • Smaller food markets are often more expensive than those in larger supermarkets, which can significantly affect the amount of food  that one can purchase. (10)

4. Schools (8):

  • Research is being done on the school “food environment” because of a connection between access to convenience stores and adolescent health.
  • Two studies found that schools located in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color are more likely to have at least one convenience store nearby.  This means that children and teenagers are exposed to more sources of junk food and drugs than better options.



Though the term food desert is widely used to describe these communities, there are other underlying factors such as poverty and inequality that often need to be addressed alongside the scarcity of nutritious food.  Policies and initiatives need to consider the problem of food deserts on every level.  In other words, to solve the problem of food deserts, governments and communities have to work together to create environments that provide and facilitate the access to nutritious foods and take into consideration the financial problems and lack of representation that exists in  these communities.



Many citizens have seen the health, lifespan, and quality of their hometowns, in places like Detroit deteriorate for the past 3 generations.  Their efforts to start community gardens, and grassroots organizations, have become solutions to this national problem.  Organizations like Black Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and the American Community Garden Association (ACGA), are examples of how communities have come together to address food insecurity.  (19)

Making an effort to resolve the issues in food deserts can improve the lives of Americans plagued by not being able to pay for the necessary health care, watching their loved ones die before it’s their time–all preventable consequences (4).  

If more efforts were made to promote access to nutrient-dense and fresh foods, food deserts would thrive physically and economically. (8) 

Federal efforts to address food insecurity began in 2009 and still are active today (29).  Two efforts, implemented by the USDA: 1. Know Your Farmer,  Know Your Food Initiative, and 2. Farm Bills of 2014 and 2018 promote accessible and affordable food throughout food deserts across the United States. 

Further collaboration between the citizens of food deserts and the government will continue to create a healthier, more inclusive, and productive nation fueled by nutritious food.  

Imagine for a moment – a nation where it is every American’s birthright to thrive and be well. A nation where every American is nourished and fueled to achieve their potential.

Policies – Food Desert Solutions (8):

  • Examples of what these policies might look like might be expressed in the form subsidies to farmers to encourage them to grow food in these areas, as well as encouraging them to bring farmer’s markets to these areas.
  • Additionally, programs that educate people on health can be promoted on a state and federal level.

Here are some programs in place:

  1. HHS: Through a Community Economic Development  (CED program),  the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awards grants to support  sources of nutrition  such as grocery stores and farmers markets These efforts also create job opportunities that especially help those in low-income communities. 
  2. USDA: The USDA invests in and supports efforts to offer better food options through the form of loans, grants, promotion, and other programs across the country.(3)

Some examples include: 

  • The 2014 and later, the 2018 Farm Bill supports farmers through Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs.
  • The Know Your Food Initiative is aimed to improve  and promote local food investments such as distribution, which is important for increasing access to healthy food.


  • Volunteer to help start community garden 
  • Volunteer or create programs that teach people how to grow their own food.
  • Donate fresh produce to food desert communities 
  • Share this blog to raise awareness about food deserts
  • Keep yourself informed on food deserts and vote for policies that may help ameliorate food deserts



Black Urban Growers  (BUGS): is a support network and organization for growers from  urban and rural  areas. They promote Black leadership in food and farm issues by advocating their voice in their communities. (19)

American Community Garden Association (ACGA) :The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) is a nonprofit organization that supports community gardens and gardeners in Canada and the United States. The association facilitates networking for community gardeners which better allows them to find the resources, information, and support they need in their communities. Their objective is also to encourage research and facilitate educational programs. (20)



Obama Administration: During the Obama administration, Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) was launched., The HFFI is an effort between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services to finance efforts to sell healthy food in food deserts. (21)

  • Let’s Move: Is an initiative launched by former First Lady, Michelle Obama, and is dedicated to helping children lead healthier lives. The objective of this program is to give families the access, support, and information they need to maintain healthy and active lifestyles. 

Karen Washington: Is a food advocate from New York who has been in service of her community since 1985.  (22)

Brahm Ahmadi: is an advocate and social entrepreneur committed to making healthy food accessible to inner-city communities.  (23)

  • Brahm’s nonprofit organization People’s Grocery, transforms and improves inner-city food systems. Some initiatives of the organization involve a suite of projects in food enterprise, urban agriculture, nutrition education, and youth development.
  • In 2012 he founded People’s Community Market (PCM) which are retail stores that provide the opportunities and resources that allow low-income residents the opportunity to improve their health. 
  • He is a Food and Community Fellow alumni at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy he is also a Board member of Food First: Institute for Food and Development Policy.


Findings indicate that policy interventions to increase access to healthy food in food deserts will help people eat a healthy diet and contribute to economic development.  (8) In  other words, a healthier community will result in a healthier, more productive society. Data from 2009 estimates that



Case Studies


Rural Iowa:

A survey of 1,500 individuals revealed some of the challenges they face:

(1) A large share (more than 45%) did not

consume adequate amounts of fresh fruits;

(2) Nearly two-thirds did not consume adequate amounts of vegetables;

(3) More than one-third (34%) lacked adequate dairy in their diet;

(4) More than one-fourth lacked the recommended levels of protein in their diet. (11)



San Francisco, CA

  • The Bayview, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods are food deserts in  San Francisco. 
  • 20%  (150,000 people) of the city’s population forsakes buying food in order to pay their bills. (12)

Los Angeles,CA 

  • There are 2  times as many supermarkets per household in low-poverty areas compared to high-poverty areas. 
  • Predominantly white areas have 3 times as many supermarkets as black areas and 1.7 times as many as Latino areas.(5)


  1. AFRICA 

With the steady urbanization of Africa, the concept of U.S. food deserts, which focus on the effects of modern retail, do not capture the complexity of the African food environment.  In an African context, the concept of food deserts have to take into account market and non-market food sources that make up the food environment of Africa. Other Africa-specific conditions also must be understood in order to recognize the factors leading to compromised diets, undernutrition and social exclusion. (13)

  • United Kingdom: A million Britons are living in “food deserts.” (14)
  • Netherlands:  A study found that 49% of Amsterdam and Diemen can be  classified as a food desert. (15)

  1. ASIA

Food in Asian neighborhoods are often accessible but are abundant in low quality food.  In other words, in Asia, terms like food deserts are often replaced by “food ocean or swamp” to better explain their food environment.  


  • In an analysis of Seoul, unhealthy food habits that are prevalent in the city despite the abundance of various food sources throughout Seoul.   
  • Four Korean-specific unhealthy food consumption factors include: insufficient food consumption due to financial difficulty, limited consumption of fruits and vegetables, excessive consumption of junk food, and excessive consumption of instant noodles. (16)


There is a concentration of food desert in the western suburbs of Sydney.  (17)


1.United States Department of Agriculture (18): 

  • 54.4 million people (17.7% of the population) live in low-income and low access areas and are more than ½ mile or 10 miles from the nearest supermarket.  
  • 19 million people in low-income and low access tracts are more than 1 mile or 10 miles from a supermarket .
  • 17.3 million people living in low-income and low access tracts and are more than 1 mile or 20 miles from a supermarket.
  • In 2009 2.3 million Americans lived more than one mile away from a supermarket and did not own a car.
  • 71 Billion could be saved with healthier eating
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides 29 dollars per week, which often cannot cover the cost of transportation or the high food costs of smaller stores.


As  the Information Age evolves, leveraging technology is one way to help solve food insecurity and ameliorate food deserts.  

Fresh Express & Twin Cities Mobile Market:  Are grocery stores on wheels that bring fresh food to their communities. (10)

Uber: A possible solution could be Uber rides, funded by federal subsidies, to and from these underserved communities. (25)

One idea we had is an Uber donation program.  Where for every ride they donate a percentage of that ride to food desert communities.  

Online Shopping: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program 

(SNAP) credits are allowing shoppers to shop online.  The benefits of these efforts are that they eliminate the cost of building new supermarkets and transportation.  A pilot program in 2017 by USDA  in conjunction with Amazon’s grocery delivery service and AmazonFresh allows citizens to pay with their EBT card, and have their groceries delivered to their door. (26)


In the United States, “food desert” is a term to refer to communities that lack access to nutritious food. 

  • These communities can be both rural and urban.
  • They often lack affordable and accessible food. 
  • National efforts to improve these conditions could contribute to creating societies that have better economies, and have higher qualities of life.

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Works Cited: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30) (31)