For many people in the United States, a trip to the grocery store is an uncomplicated weekly chore. Most grocery stores have a large produce section that offers a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. All of these fresh foods can be easily added to a healthy menu. However, for others, finding healthy foods isn’t that simple, especially if they live in a food desert.
What is a food desert?
A food desert is an area where people do not have access to a full range of affordable, healthy foods. Food deserts occur when there is not a grocery store within convenient traveling distance. This can be due to a lack of grocery stores, lack of public transportation, lack of financial means, or a combination of these factors. Food deserts are more common in communities of color and low-income areas.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Economic Research Service, 9.2 percent of all homes in the United States do not have a vehicle, and 4.2 percent of all homes are at least half a mile from a grocery store and without a vehicle. For the people living in these homes, regularly buying fresh foods may not be an option.
If a person does not have access to reliable transportation and doesn’t live within walking distance of a grocery store, his or her food options are severely limited, especially when it comes to fresh produce. Often people in food deserts end up relying on canned and packaged food from gas stations or convenience stores or fast food restaurants for their meals. These foods can also come with a price markup. For example, even if a convenience store happens to sell apples, they are sold individually instead of by the pound like at a grocery store. This increases the price per apple.
Why is access to fresh foods important?
Fresh foods and whole, unprocessed foods offer the most nutritional benefit compared to packaged and processed foods. Without access to affordable, fresh foods, good nutrition is virtually impossible.
Good nutrition lowers the risk of many diseases, including many cancers. For someone with a cancer diagnosis, nutrition is an important part of an overall treatment plan. Poor nutrition puts cancer patients at higher risk of treatment complications and breaks in treatment. Living in a food desert can be especially devastating for a cancer patient or someone with a chronic illness.
Regardless of health, race, or income, everyone deserves access to affordable, fresh, and healthy foods.
What is being done to help people in food deserts?
Thanks to more public awareness of food deserts, efforts to improve access to healthy foods are happening on all levels—federal, state, and local communities. Part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign included financial incentives such as tax breaks to grocery stores that open in recognized food deserts.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service offers the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) to providing training and assistance to people running farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture, and more to increase access to fresh, local foods.
Another USDA initiative, The People’s Garden, supports school garden, community gardens, urban farms and other small-scale, local agriculture projects. As of March 2018, 3.9 million pounds of produce have been donated to food pantries and shelters. Locally, community gardens and fresh food trucks are helping improve access to fresh foods across the country.
In Baltimore, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have replaced the term “food desert” with “Healthy Food Priority Areas.” Those involved believe the new term sheds light on increasing efforts and programs to improve access to healthy foods in the city. Additionally, the term “desert” implies that low access to healthy foods is a naturally occurring issue, not one that results from societal inequalities which need to be addressed.
While access to affordable, healthy foods continues to be an issue in many communities, with increased awareness and continued efforts on federal, state, and local levels, hopefully someday soon food deserts will be a thing of the past.
Learn more about access to healthy foods here: