Residents of U.S. Food Deserts Have Limited Healthy Options

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • “All I want for Christmas is access to fresh produce and nutritious food!” That’s a different take on the holiday saying where people have wished for anything from their two front teeth to the latest Xbox. And yet for many people living in the United States, access to these types of foods is a dream since they live in what has been defined as a food desert.


    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are parts of the country where affordable fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods such as whole grains and low-fat milk are not easily available. These areas often are found in impoverished areas that don’t have grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.

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    The USDA reports that most definitions of food desert take into account multiple indicators, such as:

    • The accessibility to sources that provide healthy food, as measured by the distance that has to be travelled to a store or the number of stores in a specific area.
    • Individual-level resources, such as the availability of transportation or family income, which may hamper accessibility to a store or other source of healthy food.
    • Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the availability of public transportation.

    So why is this important? The CDC points to multiple research studies that food deserts may negatively affect health outcomes. However, additional research is needed to see whether access to healthy foods influence what is purchased and eaten. “This has become a big problem because while food deserts are often short on whole food providers, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, instead, they are heavy on local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic,” stated the American Nutrition Association blog.


    Cities are beginning to pay attention to this information. For instance, Newark, New Jersey was considered a food desert two years ago. According to Elnardo Webster, a partner in the Newark law firm of Genova Burns Giantomasi Webster, who wrote a column for, the city’s food sources almost entirely were restaurants, takeout businesses and convenience stores. Finally, Food Depot created a store -- the first full-service supermarket to open in the city in decades -- in 2012. Now a ShopRite supermarket and a Whole Foods are under construction. “…Newark is poised to go from barren food desert to lush food forest in only about four years,” Webster said. He said this transformation was due to active cooperation between policymakers and government officials in the public sector with those in the private sector.


    Other cities are looking at innovative ways to get healthy food to people who live in food deserts. In a column for The Durham News, Christina Galardi suggests that community supported agriculture (CSA) programs offer an innovative model for food deserts. CSAs are systems that link local farmers to consumers who purchase shares of produce that is being grown. This type of model can be beneficial in cities like Durham, North Carolina, which is the site of three major census tracts that meet the definition of a food desert.


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    And the Houston Chronicle featured a story about Recipe for Success, a group that serves neighborhoods that otherwise would be a food desert. The group uses an oversized van to provide affordable, locally growth seasonal fruits and vegetables, thus becoming a “rolling greenmarket.”


    Want to know if you live in a food desert? The USDA has created a Food Access Research Atlas. This atlas lets you plug in your address and then overlays colors on a map based on low-income and low-access layers for various distances as well as the need for transportation. If you do find yourself in this type of barren area, I’d encourage you to contact your local officials and discuss what can be done to turn your area’s desert into a food oasis.


    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:


    American Nutrition Association. (2011). USDA defines food deserts.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). A look inside food deserts.


    Galardi, C. (2013). Galardi: CSAs an oasis in the food desert. The Durham News.


    Turner, A. (2012). Fresh produce vans will roll into Houston’s ‘food deserts’. Houston Chronicle.


    Webster, E. (2013). Newark growing from food desert to oasis: Opinion.

Published On: December 16, 2013