What are Food Desert Grocery Stores & Why are They so Important?


Jimmy Dorrell, D.Min


Jubilee Food Market

Part 1: USDA has identified over 6500 food deserts impacting millions of Americans

“Please help us find a way to get better food,” the elderly grandmother begged me. With two of her ‘babies’ in tow, they had just walked from lower income North Waco neighborhood over 4.5 miles round trip in the sweltering Texas sun to the closest full-service grocery store that sells fresh produce and meat. As we talked, she explained that she lived down the street in the Section 8 housing complex and her only other access to food was the convenience store next to where we stood. “Them folks rip us off selling crappy food for more than it’s worth,” she said. Ironically this same store that had been a Safeway Grocery Store 30-years before ‘white-flight’ has changed the demographics. This store only offered overpriced, day-old bread, potato chips, a few can goods, and lots of sugar-coated items. “That ain’t no grocery store, even though they call it that. All they want is for us to spend what little we have on lottery tickets, 40-ouncers, cigarettes and those one-liner games. I want my babies to have fresh bread, green beans, and even a little hamburger meat.”

DEFINITION: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an urban census tract that is poor where residents have limited access to a variety of healthful foods that is at least one-mile away. Due to having a limited income and living a distance from viable sources of healthful and affordable food, food deserts have become one of America’s most significant hunger issues. By definition to be a food desert at least 500 persons or 33% of the area must live at least one-mile from a large grocery store. Rural poverty allows the same number to live over 10-miles from a grocery store. According to USDA data in 2006, some 6500 food deserts exist, and some 11.5 million of them are poor.

HOW MANY AFFECTED: In a separate report (#165) published in 2017, USDA said, “Nearly 39.5 million people — 12.8% of the U.S. population — were living in low-income and low-access areas. Within this group, researchers estimated that 19 million people — or 6.2% of the nation’s total population — had limited access to a supermarket or grocery store.”

WHY FOOD DESERTS EMERGE: While there is no single reason, here are the primary reasons noted. 1) Lack of transportation for low-income families. 2) Abundance of convenience stores and fast-food vendors in these neighborhoods; 3) The ‘investment risk’ associated with larger grocery stores seeking to make a profit. 4) Higher security risks, whether real of perceived, including crime and costs related to insurance and safety. 5) Healthy food costs more, up to $1.50 more per day for a family.

NEGATIVE IMPACT: The lack of access to healthy and affordable food and easier access to fatty fast foods are linked to several negative health effects, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Obesity, diabetes, and overweight conditions, especially among children, are some of the major health impacts that impact quality of life. Essential components of a healthy diet should include a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and protein rich foods (lean meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, etc) and a controlled amount of calorie intake, trans fatty acids, sodium and added sugar.

RACIAL INEQUITY: Some research suggests that low-income minority ethnic groups have more limited access to healthy and affordable grocery stores than wealthier predominantly white neighborhoods. Even when there are available stores with healthy food, affordability impacts food purchases for the poor. “Food deserts are also a disproportionate reality for Black communities,” according to a 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University. “Significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity exist in the United States (US). Age-adjusted prevalence of obesity is 32.4% in non-Hispanic whites, 38.7% among Mexican Americans, and 44.1% in non-Hispanic blacks,” (Flegal et al., 2010). “Reasons for these disparities are uncertain, but one potential factor may be food store availability.”  Other research says, “Residents of neighborhoods with better access to supermarkets eat healthier diets (Larson et al., 2009), but low-income and minority neighborhoods lack adequate access to large supermarkets, a possible result of racial residential segregation.” (Black and Macinko, 2008Millstein et al., 2009).

MOTIVATIONS FOR CHANGE: Incentivizing grocery stores and supermarkets in underserved areas. While the issues are complex, here are several suggestions that have been made:

  • Funding city-wide programs to encourage healthier eating.
  • Extending support for small, corner-type stores and neighborhood-based farmers markets.
  • Partnering with the community when selecting food desert measurements, policies, and interventions.
  • Expanding pilot efforts allowing customers to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to purchase groceries online.
  • Motivating and incentivizing local non-profit organizations to study and consider taking appropriate risks to establish a healthy and affordable grocery store.

Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts” (Dutko, Ploeg, Farrigan. USDA Economic Research Service #140, August, 2012)

Food Deserts in the United States; POSTED FEBRUARY 13, 2021, BY THE ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION

The Intersection of Neighborhood Racial Segregation, Poverty, and Urbanicity and its Impact on Food Store Availability in the United States; published online on Oct 23, 2013.