“You are what you eat,” as the old saying goes. And although it’s a bit of a cliche, the underlying truth is undeniable: what goes in determines what comes out – in more ways than one.
In terms of energy, health outcomes, and even how long you live, the kinds of foods you habitually eat may have a greater impact than any other single factor.
And while the science of nutrition has long made clear the basic outlines of what makes for a healthy diet, simply being aware of what the right foods are doesn’t do you any good if you have no access to them.
Even with the best of intentions, if you live in a ‘food desert’ you might not be able to easily get healthy, nutritious food.
People living in food deserts are at the epicenter of a troubling new trend that is already having profound and potentially lasting effects on not only individual health outcomes, but on society as a whole.
We’ll explain what is a food desert, give you some food desert examples, and offer you some tips on how you can take better care of yourself and your family, even if you’re stuck in a food desert.
Definition of a food desert
“Food desert” is a relatively new term that’s been coined to describe areas where people don’t have sufficient access to affordable, healthful foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
In the US, some 23 million people live in areas where they have no access to supermarkets or other stores that sell reasonably-priced, healthy, whole foods, according to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures.
Instead of shopping at supermarkets with produce sections or farmer’s markets, people in these areas are forced to buy their food at gas stations, convenience stores, bodegas and the like.
Imagine going to a 7-11 store to buy some nice kale, a lovely head of broccoli, and a few different varieties of apples for your healthy plant-based keto diet. Healthy food just doesn’t exist in these kinds of shops.
Even if gas stations wanted to sell you the makings for a salad, shelf space is limited, and it’s mostly going to be dedicated to popular, high-profit items like potato chips and candy.
Food deserts: How do you define accessibility?
An important factor to note when we’re looking at the reasons behind the food desert phenomenon is that accessibility can mean a lot of different things.
Simply having a store nearby is only one piece of the puzzle. Living in a food desert can also be defined in terms of income and other available resources.
For instance, a person who can afford a car is going to have a whole lot more options available to them than someone who has to take the bus to get to the nearest Whole Foods.
Even if you have such a store within walking distance, it’s entirely possible that the limitations of your income make shopping there impossible – inaccessible in other words.
What’s more, for someone of lower socioeconomic status who can’t afford to pay a sitter to watch their kids, there’s a strong argument to be made for making the choice of simply popping some frozen chicken nuggets and French fries into the microwave after work for your child’s dinner.
Whipping up a lovely, healthful cordon bleu, braised Brussels sprouts with garlic and shallots, and a baby bib lettuce and walnut salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing made from scratch just isn’t an option for most of us.
Not after being on your feet at your second job getting paid $9 an hour – perhaps by that very same Mr. Bezos.
Who lives in food deserts?
So even coming up with the definition of a food desert is more complex than it might seem at first, although to define food desert often leans into geography as a necessary first step.
The first geographic food desert scenario to come to mind for most people is likely to be some version of an urban setting where available retail space is limited and rents may be prohibitively high.
And indeed, according to the USDA’s guidelines, the majority of food deserts are urban food deserts, racking up 82 percent of the total. P
Per their definition: anyone living more than 0.5 miles from a supermarket, grocery store or other source of healthy, affordable food qualifies as living in a food desert.
And in case you weren’t aware, inner cities in the US are home to a whole lot of neighborhoods like that.
However, a not insignificant number of people living in rural areas in the US are also without easy access to fresh, healthy food. Some 335,000 people in the US live more than 20 miles from a supermarket.
Imagine that: living within sight of a massive field of corn, lettuce, or soybeans, yet being unable to buy anything remotely like that without a 20 or 30 minute car ride each way.
Where are food deserts most common?
As briefly touched on above, socioeconomic status is a significant factor in where food deserts are most likely to be found.
While they certainly exist all across the US, food deserts are much more common across the opioid-ravaged, de-industrialized Midwest, and in the Deep South.
Impoverishment in the South especially has long been not only common, but has actually been arguably a deliberatelyprogrammed part of the socio-political landscape since the Civil War, and it continues to play out today in the form of food deserts.
Indeed, if you look at USDA numbers from 2015, moderate to high income areas had over 24,000 large grocery stores, while low-income areas – which are generally more heavily populated – only had 19,700.
Fully half of areas where median income was below $25,000 a year qualify as food deserts. More than 2 million households in food deserts have no access to a vehicle.
That means 2 million families are doing the bulk of their shopping at stores with severely limited options for healthy foods.
And even if they did have an efficient way to get to a not-too-distant supermarket, consider this: people living in urban food deserts pay on average 37 percent more for the exact same products as their more well-to-do suburban neighbors.
This is due to higher operating and shipping costs – and, arguably, simple greed – of corporations running supermarkets in the inner city. Given these pressures, it’s almost inevitable that people are going to make the food decisions they do.
Why are there food deserts?
This might be a good moment to reflect on the dynamics of our nutritional health, economics, and the choices available to people – along with choices society makes.
Much liberal hand-wringing occurs in the pages of our leading newspapers and television news promoting stereotypes of poor rednecks in the South and impoverished African-Americans in the inner cities who suffer from high obesity rates, diabetes, heart disease, and other health threats.
However well-intentioned, these types of articles generally cast the people of the affected communities not as victims but as perpetrators of their own ill health, consciously complicit in their own fate.
They’re presented as people who perpetually make bad dietary choices, or who simply require more education as to what healthy choices might look like.
But given all the information presented above, it becomes clear that, for a great many people, there actually is no choice.
Given the decision to heat up something for your kids that you bought at the gas station as you were racing home from work at that second or third job or feeding them nothing, it’s safe to say we would all make the same choice.
It’s easy for lazy thinkers to put people living in food deserts in a certain type of box.
In addition to higher rates of diet-related health issues, people living in these areas are also more likely to have:
Lower education levels
Higher vacancy rates in their neighborhoods
More minority residents
But as should be apparent by now, the phenomenon of food deserts is a complex, multi-layered issue that cuts across racial, economic, regional, and political tendencies and can’t easily be pinned on the individual.
What can be done about food deserts?
There is obviously no easy answer. But if you’re living in an area that lacks access to affordable and nutritious food, there are a few ways you can improve you and your neighbors’ chances.
In the face of the challenges faced by people in food deserts, it’s important to remember that you’re literally fighting for your lives.
Build a community garden
Set up a local farmer’s market
Encourage established local retailers to enhance their fresh food offerings
Petition local authorities for better transportation to non-food desert areas
Pressure local politicians to work with stores on tax incentives to entice them to set up shop
This article contains general nutritional tips and advice. However, no diet or exercise program should be started without consulting your physician or other industry professional first. For more information read our full disclaimer here.