How I Eat Healthy(ish) While Living In a Food Desert

Eating well when the odds are stacked against you.

Rachell Tenorio grew up in a small, rural community 40 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She still spends about half of each week there and the other half in Albuquerque, where she works as a program manager for a health research center. However, even if she didn’t work in the state’s largest city, Tenorio would have to make regular trips there to get fresh produce.

That’s right — Tenorio would have to drive 40 miles to get fruits, vegetables and healthful food because her small community of about 3,000 people only has a mom-and-pop shop that sells snacks, packaged food and essentials such as oil and eggs at inflated prices. She lives in what is known as a food desert — a rural, minority or low-income area with limited access to affordable, healthful food.

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Actually, much of New Mexico is considered a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture because a significant share of the population — at least 33% — is more than 1 mile in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas from the nearest supermarket. Nationwide, an estimated 19 million people — 6.2% of the population — live in low-income, low-access tracts that are more than 1 mile or 10 miles from a supermarket.

Life in a Food Desert

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this lack of access forces people to rely on packaged foods, which can lead to a poor diet and an increased risk of health problems. There was a mobile grocery that came to Tenorio’s community in an effort to alleviate the lack of access to fresh food. “That was nice to be able to go there and get vegetables,” even though the quality wasn’t always great, she said. But the funding for the mobile grocery dried up, and it stopped coming.

Fortunately, many in Tenorio’s community are hunters, which helps provide sources of meat during hunting season. And most are farmers, so there are some fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer. But the rest of the year, well … “We don’t get fresh food throughout the year,” she said.

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However, even in the growing season, there’s not a large variety of fresh produce — primarily corn, squash, chili peppers and watermelon. “We have to travel extensive lengths to get access to regular fruits and vegetables — bananas, apples, lettuce and tomatoes,” Tenorio said. “We don’t grow those.”

Tenorio said she is fortunate that she has a car and can travel to Albuquerque for work and fresh food. “It’s nice when I’m [in Albuquerque] because I have access to everything I need,” she said. “At home, I can’t just jump in my car and get what I need.”

But what about other people who have an even harder time accessing healthy foods? And what about people who might have some access to fresh fruits and vegetables but not the money if prices are marked up?

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woman grocery shopping fresh produce
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How To Get Affordable, Fresh Food

Those in the community without the resources that Tenorio has really struggle to eat healthfully, she said. They have to buy packaged foods that will last for a long time or ask others to drive them to a grocery store to occasionally get fresh foods. In fact, Tenorio’s parents and brother — with whom she lives when she’s in her community — often ask her to pick up food for them when she’s in Albuquerque.

When she shops for groceries, Tenorio typically buys enough to feed six people — herself, her two children, her parents and brother. Although she has a good job and her family helps with the cost of food, Tenorio still looks for ways to keep down the cost of eating healthfully. Here are some of the strategies she uses.

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Shop Around

“It takes time to find good prices for fruits and vegetables,” Tenorio said. Typically, Tenorio checks weekly ads before she goes shopping to compare prices at grocery stores and find the best deals on the food she wants. She’ll even go to more than one store so she can get the lowest prices on all of the items on her shopping list. Although it can be time-consuming, Tenorio said that her strategic shopping has helped keep down the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Buy What’s On Sale

Tenorio usually doesn’t buy whatever fruits and vegetables she’s in the mood to eat. Instead, she buys what’s on sale. That helps to make eating healthfully more affordable. If there is something she really wants that isn’t on sale, she’ll just buy a small quantity to satisfy her craving while keeping costs under control.

Settle for Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

To eat healthfully on a budget, Tenorio said she sometimes substitutes fresh fruits and vegetables for frozen ones. She prefers to eat fresh produce, but she can save money by heading to the freezer section of the supermarket. Plus, frozen produce lasts longer, which is beneficial when you don’t have easy access to a supermarket. And she prefers it to canned items.

See: 8 Times To Buy Fresh Veggies, and 8 Times To Buy Frozen 

Make the Most of Limited Resources

Although Tenorio tries to make sure she and her family include fruit and vegetables in their diet, she said she knows they don’t eat enough of them. Tenorio prioritizes sources of protein, such as eggs, meat and milk, and staples like bread when grocery shopping. “Those things add up,” she said. As a result, there’s not much left in her food budget for fruits and vegetables.

If she had better access to more affordable fresh produce, Tenorio said it would be easier to eat as healthfully as she would like to be able to eat. For now, she does the best she can with the resources she has.

Click to read more about ways to eat healthy on a budget.

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About the Author

Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.

U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.

She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.