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Food Sick

Food Sick: Understanding the Food Desert Crisis in America

Written by: Peyton Lessard

Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD

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6 minutes

23 million Americans live in food deserts, with limited access to fresh foods. As a result, they’re at a greater risk for long-term chronic health problems. Learn how the food industry became a driving force behind food deserts — and what you can do to address them.

The metabolic health crisis is closely tied to rising obesity rates, which have increased by 11.4% in the last 20 years [1]. This is a complex issue, with many contributing factors — like poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, and our food and physical environments — that work together to make it a challenge to reverse the trend of poor health.

That said, one of the key driving forces behind obesity statistics is a lack of access to fresh, nutrient-dense produce. In fact, 23.5 million Americans live in so-called food deserts, where supermarkets are scarce and residents have a hard time reaching them [2]. 

Food deserts disproportionately affect low-income communities that are populated by people of color — and much of this is by design. The profit-driven models of the food industry (a.k.a., Big Food) are behind many of the disparities we see in food deserts. 

What Is a Food Desert?

A food desert is a geographic area where residents, with low incomes and inadequate transportation systems, have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food [2]. The food retailers that are available in the area are stocked with processed food options. 

According to the USDA, a “food desert” has the following characteristics:

  1. the poverty rate is greater than or equal to 20%, or median family income does not exceed 80% statewide (rural/urban) or metro-area (urban) median family income, and 
  2. at least 500 people or 33% of the population located more than 1 mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store. 

Food deserts are more common in areas with smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower incomes, education, and higher rates of unemployment.

Urban vs. Rural Food Deserts

For both urban and rural regressions, minority populations, poverty rates, and regions of the country are consistently significant predictors of food desert status.

A 2014 study compared U.S. census tracts (small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of the country) and found that [3]:

Rural areas located in the West, Midwest, and South of the U.S. are much more likely to be food deserts than rural areas that are located in the Northeast [2]. That said, rural areas with growing populations (no matter where they’re located in the U.S.) are less likely to be food deserts [2].

Why Do Food Deserts Exist?

Food deserts are complex and there’s no one “cause” that explains why they exist. Several key contributing factors, however, include transportation difficulties, convenience food, and income inequality [4]. 

Families with low incomes are less likely to have a reliable source of transportation, which can prevent residents from traveling to buy healthy groceries. Low-income families are also more likely to live in communities populated by smaller corner stores, convenience markets, and fast food vendors with limited healthy food options. 

The Role of the Food Industry

The most prominent factor that causes food deserts to exist is Big Food itself. 

Thanks to the food industry, an abundance of processed foods are readily available at a low cost. But these options are not cheap when it comes to our health. Big Food is profit-driven, which means that they are focused on producing and marketing products that sell well, regardless of the health impact of the item.

This widespread availability of processed foods affects low-income regions disproportionately. Families in these areas have limited access to transportation and suppliers that can provide year-round supplies of nutritious, fresh produce and groceries. As a result, people living in food deserts are left with no choice but to resort to processed foods or fast foods, which are usually full of empty calories, saturated fats, and added sugars — all of which add fuel to the fire that is the metabolic health crisis. 

The rise of dollar stores and convenience stores is part of the problem. Dollar stores in particular have shifted their focus from personal care and craft items to prepackaged, shelf-stable foods — and their prevalence has caused local grocers to be driven out due to competitive pricing while leaving consumers with limited, less healthy options. 

In fact, in a 2023 study, Tufts researchers found that dollar stores are now the fastest-growing food retailers in the U.S. [5]. In rural and low-income areas, people spend more than 5% of their food budget at dollar stores — and rural non-Hispanic Black households spend as much as 11.6% of their food budgets at dollar stores [5].

Obesity and Food Deserts

So how do food deserts — and their lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods — tie into increasing obesity rates?

In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight, and of these, over 650 million were obese [6]. That same year, an estimated 15.6 million households (12.3%) were food insecure [7]. In a 2019 study, researchers found that individuals who are food insecure are at an increased risk of obesity [7]. The study results showed that those living in food deserts are at an elevated risk for obesity as well, and overall, Black and Hispanic households are at a higher risk for food insecurity in the U.S. [7].  

The Availability of Processed Foods 

A 2014 analysis showed that both the distance to stores and prices lead to increased rates of obesity [8]. Offering better prices for healthy foods relative to junk foods, actively marketing healthy foods, and enabling consumers to resist the influence of junk food marketing were found to be as important as improving the location of supermarkets [8]. These factors are important to focus on due to Big Food’s power in driving consumers’ choices. 

A study with inpatient adult volunteers reiterated the fact that processed foods facilitate overeating and obesity development due to being high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat, and are engineered to trigger abnormal appetite resulting in compulsive eating behavior [9]. The study found that participants over-consumed 500 more calories unintentionally when eating processed foods.

What Can We Do About Food Deserts?

Many levels of influence come into play when discussing our health and food systems. There are national, community, and individual factors that shape our eating habits and patterns. To combat food deserts, here are some strategies for alleviating food desert conditions [10]:

If you have the means, consider donating to organizations that are doing impactful work in food security and access. It’s one of the best ways to support committed non-profits that have the knowledge, expertise, and local insight to best support communities in need of food access and justice. Here are some organizations to check out:



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