What’s a food desert?

Food deserts not only reduce food options, but also contribute to poor health and are associated with lower quality of life.

When you think of the word desert, a vast area of nothing might come to mind. Food deserts are very much large areas of nothing; in relation to healthy food that is. A food desert is an area in which there is no access to fresh, healthy, affordable food and more than 20 percent of the neighborhood falls below the poverty line. Food deserts typically have many fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer more quick, unhealthy options than not.

There are often barriers associated with living in a food desert area. These include but are not limited to:

  • Transportation is a major issue for those living in food deserts. In urban area food deserts, many residents live a mile or more from a grocery store or supermarket. Public transportation might be the only option for many living in urban areas. It can be very difficult to purchase groceries for the whole family and transport them on the bus. In rural areas, these stores are usually more than 10 miles away. Many people who live in food deserts don’t have regular access to a vehicle or if they do, fuel cost can be quite high; in Michigan, currently, averaging around $3.50/gallon.
  • Access to healthy foods is a barrier to living a healthy lifestyle in a food desert. There might be a lot of options for food in these areas but most are not of the healthy variety. Many of the stores that residents have access to do not sell food as their main source of revenue, such as gas stations and party stores. The reason they exist might be to sell gas or alcohol rather than food. Healthy, fresh, wholesome food is likely not the priority on the list of foods to sell and oftentimes if they do sell fresh food, the quality is poor and the price is high.
  • Cost of food from corner stores and fast food places is higher than at larger grocery stores and super markets; especially the cost of healthier options like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – if they’re even offered. Since these stores are not buying large amounts of fresh food, it often costs more to purchase and therefore, it cost the consumer more to buy. Another reason fresh options might cost more is because the stores sell them individually instead of in a group. For example, a corner store might sell bananas for $.50 each and a grocery store sells bananas for an average of $.50 a pound. An average banana weighs less than half a pound. In this scenario, the consumer is paying more than double for a banana purchased at a corner store.

So what is the cost of living in a food desert? Research has shown that living in a food desert can have negative impacts on health. Some of the research shows that there may be a link to living in food deserts and obesity. Many of the foods that are available in food deserts lack nutritional value and are often high in calories, fat, sugar and sodium. While there are not any “no” foods, these types of foods should only be eaten occasionally, rather than being a staple of the diet, to reduce the risk for chronic diseases. As reported in Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit, those living in food deserts are more likely to develop one or more diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, kidney failure, obesity and cardiovascular disease. The report states “unless access to health food greatly improves, residents will continue to have greater rates of premature illness and death.”

Living far away from a grocery store or super market doesn’t mean that you have to live an unhealthy lifestyle. Michigan State University Extension offers nutrition education classes for adults and youth that includes information on stretching your food dollar and making healthy choices with what you have. Read part two of this article, Overcoming barriers to living in a food desert. More information can be found at http://msue.anr.msu.edu/topic/info/nutrition.

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