Food deserts are urban areas where the nearest grocery store is more than 1 mile away, and rural areas where the nearest grocery store is more than 10 miles away. According to the USDA, 19 million Americans — or 6.2% of the population — live in what can be considered food deserts.
The issue isn’t necessarily about the difference in cost between healthy vs. unhealthy foods in these areas — although a University of Illinois study found that food is more expensive in food deserts compared to higher-income areas — it’s about a lack of access to healthy choices at all. And, with the lack of healthy food options, these areas typically have an abundance of unhealthy food choices sold at fast-food chains and convenience stores stocked with packaged, processed foods.
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What’s at Stake: The Link Between Food Deserts and Obesity
Eating unhealthy foods can lead to obesity, which puts people at risk for a host of major health issues, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease, some cancers, kidney disease and pregnancy problems.
But some people — especially those who cannot afford a car — are stuck with eating what’s readily available. In the case of food deserts, it’s usually the type of food that can lead to obesity. Studies have shown that this tends to be a problem in low-income areas where people physically cannot get to a grocery store and instead shop at local convenience stores or buy fast food, which is easily accessible. Even when residents in these areas find ways to get to a grocery store, they might be hesitant to buy fresh food because it’s perishable. When money is tight, people tend to buy foods that last longer and eliminate food waste, which is essentially a waste of their limited income.
Lack of access is only one part of the problem, however. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Statistics in 2018 found that even when people from low-income neighborhoods were given easy access to the same food products available in high-income neighborhoods, food inequality wasn’t eliminated. The bigger issue was likely the lack of education and nutritional knowledge in these communities, which prevents people with lower incomes from understanding the benefits of healthful eating.
While obesity is a significant issue in these communities, the cost of unhealthy eating isn’t just physical. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that $71 billion in healthcare costs due to chronic diseases could be saved through healthier eating.
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Where Are the Food Deserts in America?
Although you might think that people living in major cities have plenty of healthy food options, this isn’t always the case — some of the largest food deserts in the U.S. are located in major cities, including New York, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago. According to the USDA food desert map, there are areas all across the country where residents have no access to grocery stores.
In New York, the Bronx is disproportionally hit with a lack of access to healthy food — and in some cases, a lack of access to any food. According to National Geographic, the South Bronx has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, at 37%. Many of the area’s residents are unemployed or underemployed and live in poverty.
Houston has also become a food desert of sorts, with many residents unable to afford or get access to healthy foods. Time is sometimes just as important as money in determining access to healthy foods. National Geographic profiled a local single mom who doesn’t have time to return home and cook meals because she’s always on the go, working as a home health aide and shuttling her kids to and from school. She often relies on premade dinners and fast food to feed her family.
But it’s not just urban areas where people struggle to make healthy foods a part of their daily diet. In areas like Osage, Iowa — though corn and soybean farms are plentiful — one in eight Iowans struggles with food insecurity, National Geographic reported. Many of these families simply can’t afford to put food on the table. They rely on food pantries and donations to get by, so they don’t always have the luxury of choosing healthful foods.
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What’s Being Done To Help: Food Desert Solutions
In addition to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income earners pay for food, the government has launched several initiatives to help people in food deserts afford — and choose — healthier options. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Health and Human Services that provides funding to bring grocery stores, farmers markets and other sources of healthy foods to food deserts. There’s also the Let’s Move! initiative founded by former first lady Michelle Obama, which aims to bring healthy meals to schools and ensure that every family has access to healthy, affordable foods.
Of course, education must be a piece of the puzzle in solving this crisis. The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program is a federal program that teaches over 500,000 low-income families and low-income youth each year about the importance of a healthy diet and physical activity.
Several nonprofits are also working to eliminate local food deserts. This includes the Twin Cities Mobile Market, which brings fresh foods to areas around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, that don’t have easy access to full-service grocery stores.
The solution to food deserts is complex, and it requires both increased education and better access to healthy foods. In the meantime, it’s important to never take the fresh food that you get to eat for granted — even if it’s just a sad desk salad.
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