Food Deserts

What is a Food Desert?

The most simple definition for a very complex problem is an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. People who live in these areas may live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation.

Food deserts occur in both urban and rural areas. Here are two examples: 1) Detroit, Michigan. The Motor City has a population of 911,000 living within the city’s 140 square miles. One out of five households does not have a car. There are just 40 grocery stores (the last supermarket chain closed in 2007). In Central Detroit, processed, high-calorie snacks from liquor stores, convenience stores and gas stations (prior to the urban garden movement) were virtually the only kinds of foods available. Most residents live twice as far from the nearest supermarket as from a fast food restaurant. Unsurprisingly, Detroit also has one of the nation’s highest obesity rates in the U.S. 2) In the Lower Mississippi Delta, you’ll likely find one supermarket serving a 190.5-square-mile area. There, residents could expect to drive 30 miles or more from home to store.

Farm Bill programs could effectively address the problem of food deserts. Grants and loans could be provided  for community-based planning and financing of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and community gardens. These efforts would increase the opportunities for people to purchase healthy foods in their communities and create new markets for farmers. To help address the difficulties growers face in meeting the increasing demand for locally grown foods, funds are also needed to invest in vital infrastructure such as slaughtering and processing facilities, warehouses, and storage and distribution centers.

References and More to Read!

Financing Measure Could Boost Farm Production in Food Deserts (Bob Heuer & Patty Cantrell, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, July 22, 2011)

Grabbing the Food Deserts: Large-scale land acquisitions and the expansion of retail monopolies (Yi Wang with Eric Holt-Giménez and Annie Shattuck, Food First, April, 2011)

Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food — Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress (USDA, 2009)
This USDA report summarizes the findings of a national-level assessment of the extent and characteristics of food deserts, analysis of the consequences of food deserts, lessons learned from related Federal programs, and a discussion of policy options for alleviating the effects of food deserts.

USDA Food Desert Locator

The USDA Environmental Food Atlas
This interactive map is a great tool that shows levels of food access on a variety of parameters. One can gather statistics on a county, state or national basis.

What’s a food desert? (Maria Colenso)
This article contains a very good bibliography for further reading.

Welcome to the food deserts of rural America (Steph Larsen, 2011)

From Motown to Growtown: The Greening of Detroit (Tom Philpott, 2010)

Few Healthy Food Choices in Urban Food Deserts (Andy Weisbecker, Food Safety News, May 21, 2010). Contains recommendations on what to about it.

Can USDA Mobile Grocery Stores Eliminate Rural Food Deserts? (Katherine Gustafson,  2010)

Food Deserts: Access in America (Natasha Chart  2009)
A very short summary of some of the findings in the USDA report.

Curing Detroit’s Obesity Crisis: Oasis in a Food Desert (Cynthia Gordy, 2009)

Can America’s Urban Food Deserts Bloom? (Steven Gray, 2009)

Examining the Impacts of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit (Mari Gallagher, 2008)

Rural Food Deserts: Food Price Comparisons [between] Local Grocery Stores and Out-of-County Wal-Mart (Lois Wright Morton, 2006)

Northwest Farm Bill Action Group • • 2011
Design based on Missed Spring theme • Rainier image courtesy of USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory