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Food Desert

Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet (1). Many Americans living in rural, minority, or low-income areas are subjected to food deserts and may be unable to access affordable, healthy foods, leaving their diets lacking essential nutrients.

What’s the Problem?

Rural, minority, and low income areas are often the sites of food deserts because they lack large, retail food markets and have a higher number of convenience stores, where healthy foods are less available (2). Studies have shown that food deserts can negatively affect health outcomes but more research must be done to show how that influence occurs. There appears to be a link between access to affordable nutritious foods and the eating of these foods, meaning less access may lead to less incorporation of healthy foods into the populations’ diets.

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Who's at Risk?

Because there is no standard definition of a food desert, estimates of how much of the population is affected vary by quite a bit. However, it’s safe to say that many Americans have limited access to affordable nutritious foods because they do not live near a supermarket or large grocery store. Transportation is specifically part of the USDA food desert definition. Only common theme among food desert definitions is that there is limited access. Either cite USDA or delete.

Can It Be Prevented?

Food deserts can be improved through several different types of efforts. Establishing a community garden where participants share in the maintenance and products of the garden and organizing local farmers markets are two efforts that community members themselves can do (3, 4). Local governments can improve local transportation like buses and metros to allow for easier access to established markets (5). They can also change zoning codes and offer economic or tax incentives to attract retailers with healthier food offerings to the area (6).

The Bottom Line

Food deserts are a big problem for many Americans that may limit their ability to eat healthy and nutritious foods on a regular basis. However, there are a variety of ways that local governments and community members can both improve food access in their neighborhoods.

Case Example

Maria is a 60-year-old woman living in a low-income area of St. Louis. As she’s gotten older, she hasn’t been able to get around as well and doesn’t have a car. She usually eats a lot of unhealthy and microwavable foods because the closest store to her apartment is the local convenience store around the corner. She wishes that she could eat better and begins talking to some of her neighbors and other families in the building to get their input. Maria and her next-door neighbor Sylvia organize all the residents in their building to establish a community garden on the roof of the building so that they will all have fresh fruits and vegetables to share.

Related Links

1, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “CDC Features: Food Deserts.”

2, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “Healthy Places: Healthy Food Environment.”

3, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “Healthy Places: Community Gardens.”

4, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “Healthy Places: Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and Local Food Distribution.”

5, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “Healthy Places: Transportation and Food Access.”

6, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2011). “Healthy Places: Zoning.”

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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