Food Deserts in the United States

Posted February 13, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Food desert data shows that nearly 39.5 million people were living in low-income and low-access areas

What is a food desert?

Food deserts are geo­graph­ic areas where res­i­dents have few to no con­ve­nient options for secur­ing afford­able and healthy foods — espe­cial­ly fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles. Dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly found in high-pover­ty areas, food deserts cre­ate extra, every­day hur­dles that can make it hard­er for kids, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties to grow healthy and strong.

Where are food deserts located?

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, food deserts are more com­mon in areas with:

  • small­er populations;
  • high­er rates of aban­doned or vacant homes; and
  • res­i­dents who have low­er lev­els of edu­ca­tion, low­er incomes, and high­er rates of unemployment.

Food deserts are also a dis­pro­por­tion­ate real­i­ty for Black com­mu­ni­ties, accord­ing to a 2014 study from Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty. The study com­pared U.S. cen­sus tracts of sim­i­lar pover­ty lev­els and found that, in urban areas, Black com­mu­ni­ties had the fewest super­mar­kets, white com­mu­ni­ties had the most, and mul­tira­cial com­mu­ni­ties fell in the mid­dle of the super­mar­ket count spectrum.

How are food deserts identified?

Researchers con­sid­er a vari­ety of fac­tors when iden­ti­fy­ing food deserts, including:

  • Access to food, as mea­sured by dis­tance to a store or by the num­ber of stores in an area.
  • House­hold resources, includ­ing fam­i­ly income or vehi­cle availability.
  • Neigh­bor­hood resources, such as the aver­age income of the neigh­bor­hood and the avail­abil­i­ty of pub­lic transportation.

One way that the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture iden­ti­fies food deserts is by search­ing for low-income, low-access cen­sus tracts.

In low-access cen­sus tracts, a sig­nif­i­cant share (33% or more) of res­i­dents must trav­el an incon­ve­nient dis­tance to reach the near­est super­mar­ket or gro­cery store (at least 1 mile in urban areas and 10 miles in rur­al areas).

In low-income cen­sus tracts, the local pover­ty rate is at least 20% or the medi­an-fam­i­ly income is at most 80% of the statewide medi­an fam­i­ly income.

Map­ping food deserts in the Unit­ed States

Map of Food Deserts in the United States
Source: The Food at Home report by Enter­prise Com­mu­ni­ty Partners

How many Amer­i­cans live in food deserts?

Near­ly 39.5 mil­lion peo­ple — 12.8% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion — were liv­ing in low-income and low-access areas, accord­ing to the USDA’s most recent food access research report, pub­lished in 2017.

With­in this group, researchers esti­mat­ed that 19 mil­lion peo­ple — or 6.2% of the nation’s total pop­u­la­tion — had lim­it­ed access to a super­mar­ket or gro­cery store.

Why do food deserts exist?

There is no sin­gle cause of food deserts, but there are sev­er­al con­tribut­ing fac­tors. Among them:

  • Trans­porta­tion chal­lenges — Low-income fam­i­lies are less like­ly to have reli­able trans­porta­tion, which can pre­vent res­i­dents from trav­el­ing longer dis­tances to buy groceries.
  • Con­ve­nience food — Low-income fam­i­lies are more like­ly to live in com­mu­ni­ties pop­u­lat­ed by small­er cor­ner stores, con­ve­nience mar­kets and fast food ven­dors with lim­it­ed healthy food options.
  • Added risksOpen­ing a super­mar­ket or gro­cery store chain is an invest­ment risk, and this risk can grow to pro­hib­i­tive pro­por­tions in low­er-income neigh­bor­hoods. For exam­ple: The pur­chas­ing pow­er of cus­tomers in these com­mu­ni­ties — includ­ing fam­i­lies enrolled in the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram — can change dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the course of a month. At the same time, the threat of high­er crime rates, whether real or per­ceived, can raise a business’s insur­ance fees and secu­ri­ty costs.
  • Income inequal­i­ty — Healthy food costs more. When researchers from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty and Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty stud­ied diet pat­terns and costs, they found that the health­i­est diets — meals rich in veg­eta­bles, fruits, fish and nuts — were, on aver­age, $1.50 more expen­sive per day than diets rich in processed foods, meats and refined grains. For fam­i­lies liv­ing pay­check to pay­check, the high­er cost of healthy food could make it inac­ces­si­ble even when it’s read­i­ly available.

How has the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic impact­ed food access?

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic inject­ed even more chal­lenges — both logis­ti­cal and finan­cial — into the com­plex field of food access.

As COVID-19 cas­es rose across the coun­try, restau­rants, cor­ner stores and food mar­kets — among oth­er busi­ness­es — closed their doors or reduced their oper­at­ing hours. Res­i­dents who relied on pub­lic trans­porta­tion for fetch­ing gro­ceries faced addi­tion­al hur­dles, includ­ing new trav­el restric­tions and scaled-back ser­vice schedules.

Beyond mak­ing it hard­er to get to the gro­cery store, the pan­dem­ic also kicked off an eco­nom­ic cri­sis that made it hard­er for some fam­i­lies to afford gro­ceries. In fact, near­ly 10% of par­ents with only young chil­dren — kids ages five and under — report­ed hav­ing insuf­fi­cient food for their fam­i­lies and insuf­fi­cient resources to pur­chase more, accord­ing to a fall 2020 food inse­cu­ri­ty update from Brookings.

What solu­tions to food deserts can be pursued?

Envi­ron­men­tal, pol­i­cy and indi­vid­ual fac­tors shape eat­ing habits and pat­terns — both per­son­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, accord­ing to Joel Git­tel­sohn, a pub­lic health expert at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty. With­in this com­plex land­scape, some strate­gies for alle­vi­at­ing food desert con­di­tions include:

  • Incen­tiviz­ing gro­cery stores and super­mar­kets in under­served areas.
  • Fund­ing city-wide pro­grams to encour­age health­i­er eating.
  • Extend­ing sup­port for small, cor­ner-type stores and neigh­bor­hood-based farm­ers markets.
  • Part­ner­ing with the com­mu­ni­ty when select­ing food desert mea­sure­ments, poli­cies, and interventions.
  • Expand­ing pilot efforts allow­ing cus­tomers to use Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram ben­e­fits to pur­chase gro­ceries online.

Casey Foun­da­tion resources on food inse­cu­ri­ty and food access

The Kids, Fam­i­lies and COVID-19 KIDS COUNT® pol­i­cy report high­lights pan­dem­ic pain points, includ­ing the uptick in food inse­cu­ri­ty across the Unit­ed States.

Food at Home, a Casey-fund­ed report, explores lever­ag­ing afford­able hous­ing as a plat­form to over­come nutri­tion­al chal­lenges. The pub­li­ca­tion touch­es on food deserts and their impact on com­mu­ni­ties across the Unit­ed States.

A Sep­tem­ber 2019 Data Snap­shot shares rec­om­mend­ed moves that lead­ers can take to help fam­i­lies in high-pover­ty, low-oppor­tu­ni­ty com­mu­ni­ties thrive.

Nation­al sta­tis­tics on kids and food inse­cu­ri­ty, via the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

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