Food Desert Access: Where’d You Get That Apple?

The first time I read the term “food desert” I thought the author had misspelled “dessert”. When I realized it wasn’t a typo, I read on, curious about this new term. Food deserts are places with limited access to healthy, whole foods. As a food blogger, and self-proclaimed lover of food in general, it’s an issue that resonates.

What is a Food Desert?

A food desert is defined by the USDA as an area that has low access to fresh produce and healthy whole foods. Often times, food deserts are found in impoverished communities where whole food providers like grocery stores and farmers markets are few and far between. In these communities, processed and boxed foods laden with sugar, fats, and impossible to pronounce preservatives are readily available at convenience stores or local “quick stops”.

food desert atlas
The USDA map shows low income and low access communities.

A Nutritional Void

Because of the nature of food deserts, the “grocery store” of choice for locals often becomes the nearby convenience store packing foods with empty calories and almost no nutritional value, rather than an actual grocery store or supermarket with healthful alternatives.

Before we go blaming people for stopping at an unhealthy local store, rather than spending the extra time to drive to a grocery store, we have to understand their choices. Food desert access is extremely limited. In some rural communities, even the grocery stores aren’t equipped to stock nutritional or fresh produce, and some don’t have access to local produce at all. Their selections of boxed and preserved foods might be more extensive than the convenience store, but in terms of healthy selections, consumers are still limited. Food deserts exist in urban communities too.

These communities are trapped in nutritional voids. For those of us with regular access to fresh produce and farmers markets, try to imagine not cooking with those ingredients. I have a hard time picturing what my weekly meals would look like without a fresh bell pepper, or an onion, lettuce or spinach, fruit…

fresh produce, healthy

Making a Desert Bloom: Increasing Food Desert Access

Food deserts are a reality. For most of the United States, holding out for supermarkets and grocers to expand their offerings into low-access communities isn’t an option. So what can we do?

  1. Start with the map. Figure out if you live in a food desert, or near to one.
  2. Search for existing programs to combat food deserts. In Albuquerque, Project Feed the Hood maintains a community garden, hosts educational workshops, and is working with local schools to provide students with access to fresh produce. The MoGro Food Club model allows communities to benefit from bulk purchasing and wholesale prices on fresh produce. On the Navajo Nation, leaders are rethinking the traditional convenience store model.
  3. No programs in your area? Look for opportunities to start one. How can your food desert access healthy food sources? These three women had some pretty innovative ideas for increasing food access in their communities.

farmers market, growers market, produce

Want to learn more? Here’s where I started:

Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet – Feeding America

USDA Food Desert Atlas – USDA

Millions of Food Desert Dwellers Struggle to Get Fresh Groceries – U.S. News & World Report