Combating Food Deserts

by Varun Sreedhara
3 mins read

A food desert is usually a low-income area in which people have little to no access to fresh, healthy food at affordable prices, and face several hardships in procuring nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables. Not only are grocery stores harder to find in food deserts, but the fresh, nutritious products they sell are more expensive than processed foods. With processed foods often being an alternative, they can lead to an increase in health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and various types of cancer linked to obesity. The Food Desert Locator developed by the USDA’s ERS(Economic Research Service) found that about 10 percent of the approximately 65,000 census tracts in the United States as food deserts. About 13.5 million people in these census tracts have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store, with 82 percent living in urban areas. Wherever there are food deserts, they tend to affect Black and Brown communities disproportionately. According to a multi-site study done by Moreland et al in 2002, it was evident from their findings that predominantly white neighborhoods had 4-times as many supermarkets than black neighborhoods. Likewise, according to “Food Deserts: What They Are and WHAT CAUSES THEM”, “Indigenous peoples of America live farther away from grocery stores than any other demographic. 12% of American Indians and Alaska Natives live 20 miles or more from their nearest grocery store.” 

What causes food deserts? As wealthier people have access to privatized mobility, they are able to move out from densely populated cities, and with them went many grocery stores that were in the area– this leads to the emergence of food deserts within city centers. With lower rates of employment and higher rates of poverty, low-income areas aren’t as appealing for

grocery store owners to open up shop as they prefer more affluent areas which are more profitable. According to “Urban and rural grocery stores struggling in Illinois” by Andrew Hensel of The Center Square, “Some grocers have cited poor store performance or lack of sales as reasons for their exits.” According to Owen Walsh of the Humane League, in Chicago alone over 500,000 live in food deserts. In a recent study on areas with predominantly Black residents, the closest grocery store is twice as far as the nearest fast food restaurant. High crime rates in inner city neighborhoods has also been cited as one of the reasons for supermarket owners to avoid these areas. According to Charles D. Ellison of The Philadelphia Citizen, “Rates of food insecurity, ranging from 20 percent to over 30 percent in Philadelphia, are also most prevalent where there is rising violence.” 

There are several strategies that can be utilized for dealing with urban food deserts. These communities don’t just need another grocery store, they need a holistic approach that prioritizes residents and their health. Cities need to improve infrastructure like transportation so that residents have easier access to grocery stores. City planners could also encourage small retailers such as farmer’s markets or other small street vendors near residences. Community gardens are a great alternative since fresh, healthy produce could be grown by residents and distributed to others. This could encourage a healthy and economic lifestyle as well as a sense of community between people. People in Winchester, Illinois have also tried to combat food deserts through co-op markets, where residents open up collectively owned and operated markets. As a result, the residents become both the suppliers and customers of these businesses. Another approach is to have small grocer and corner stores stock their shelves with affordable healthy foods instead of unhealthy processed foods. Currently in New York City, there is a city-wide initiative to restock the shelves of bodegas and small stores with fresh, healthy, affordable foods. Last but not least, mobile markets are another great solution to tackle food deserts, it’s just like bringing a grocery store right to your house. Transportation is often a struggle, so having a mobile market to bring fresh produce to their doorstep instead of having to commute long distances to a grocery store is a great solution. 


Michele Ver Ploeg, David Nulph, and Ryan Williams “Mapping Food Deserts in the United States” Economic Research Service U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 16 October 2022 online. 

Nathaniel M. Mead “Urban Issues: The Sprawl of Food Deserts” Nation Institute of Health 16 October 2022 online. 

Charles D. Ellison “Violent Areas Are Hungry Areas” The Philadelphia Citizen 16 October 2022 online.

Andrew Hensel “Urban and rural grocery stores struggling in Illinois” The Center Square 16 October 2022 online. 

Owen Walsh “FOOD DESERTS: WHAT THEY ARE AND WHAT CAUSES THEM” The Humane League 16 October 2022 online.

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