Photo: KOSU

A Desert of a Different Kind

The Food Desert Epidemic that Plagues America

In a Nutshell

Elisabeth Silver

October 25th, 2018

Food deserts, as defined by the USDA, are “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Usually, this pertains to the lack of accessible grocery stores in areas. In urban areas, this may mean that a grocery store with fresh produce is not within reasonable walking distance of one’s residence, while in a rural area it may mean that grocery store is not within reasonable driving distance or a small percentage of the community has regular access to transportation. About 2.3 million people (2.2% of Americans) live in areas more than 1 mile away from a supermarket and do not have access to a car. Though this is a small percentage, it is important nonetheless for every person to have access to healthy and fresh produce.


Food deserts have a tendency to affect regions of lower socioeconomic status much more than regions of higher socioeconomic status. According to one study, wealthy residential districts had, on average, three times as many grocery stores as poor districts. Even when those in poorer districts do have access to grocery stores, they tend to pay more, between 3% and 37%, than those who have access to larger, chain grocery stores. This is likely due to fact that these grocery stores are locally owned and therefore have to increase prices in order to stay in business, something that larger grocery chains do not have to worry as much about. This research evidences that food deserts disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods, which has effects that reverberate far past what people eat. 


Years of research have evidenced that fast food and high-fat foods are directly related to health risks such as cancer and heart disease. High costs of healthy food and low costs of fast food and high-fat food often drive low-income families and individuals to spend their money more economically on these types of foods. The Produce Marketing Association found that lower-income individuals (those under the $50,000 income range) are more likely to be light produce buyers than higher income groups. Low-income individuals also spend on average only $4.72 per purchase on fresh produce while higher income individuals spend on average $9.36 per purchase on fresh produce. Because those with lower socioeconomic status spend less on healthy food, they are more likely to spend that money on high-fat food due to the lower costs. This leads to those in low-income communities being most susceptible to obesity and health risks related to poor diet and higher weight. 


Food deserts are a continual problem in America. They affect communities throughout the nation in both rural and urban areas. In New York City, for example, more than 750,000 people live in food deserts with about three million more living far from stores that sell fresh produce. This trend continues in several other cities, such as Chicago, and is prevalent in rural places such as Appalachia as well. Food deserts, sustained through lack of proper access to fresh produce and other healthy foods, help create an American epidemic that leads to low socioeconomic communities being plagued with dangerous health problems. Some government projects, such as one in Los Angeles that lowered the prevalence of fast food restaurants in low-income areas, have had an effect, but until the problem of food deserts can be eliminated, the dire situation created by them will continue to plague communities throughout the United States.