What Is a Food Desert? Causes, Statistics, & Resources | Ohio University (2023)

What Is a Food Desert? Causes, Statistics, and Resources

In a semi-rural community in the United States, a person who is working two part-time jobs and struggling to pay bills may want to purchase healthy and nutritious food. But the nearest grocery store can be miles away, and the fresh fruits and vegetables for sale may cost more than what that person can afford. Instead, they may turn to cheaper but unhealthier fast food options that provide calories but not much nutritional value.

This person is living in what is known as a food desert, where there is a lack of access to nutritious and healthy foods due to various factors. Addressing food deserts can be a significant challenge; however, there are strategies, actions, and methods that can help.

Let’s take a look at information about food deserts, their causes and effects, and resources that can empower individuals and organizations to make a positive impact.

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Food Desert: Definition, Causes, and Statistics

There are several resources that can help individuals who are living in food deserts obtain healthy foods. Before exploring those resources, it is important to first understand the underlying causes of this issue.

Food Desert Definition

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food deserts are “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” The key word in that definition is access, which can be impaired or limited by several factors, such as income, location, time, and the ability to travel to a store.

The specific guidelines for what determines a food desert can vary. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that measurements and definitions of food deserts often take into account common factors.

Accessibility: How many healthy food sources there are in one area, or how far away the closest healthy food source may be

Individual barriers: A person’s own unique restrictions that may prevent them from accessing healthy food, such as not enough time in their schedule or lack of necessary funds to purchase food

Neighborhood indicators: Determining factors such as reliable and abundant public transportation, or if average neighborhood incomes are near or below the poverty line


The USDA provides a helpful atlas that can help visitors identify food deserts in the United States.

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For example, in Ohio, there are clusters of what can be considered food deserts around major cities such as Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, as well as in smaller cities and communities across the state. Even with the abundance of stores and services in major cities, food deserts still may exist due to the lack of income by customers to purchase healthy food. Even in an urban environment where there are several high-end restaurants, there still may be fewer options available for individuals to purchase healthy and nutritious food.

This makes food deserts an issue that isn’t necessarily restricted to rural or low-population areas. In Los Angeles, the second-most populous city in the country, there is still an abundance of food deserts within the larger county area. Even though these deserts are surrounded by areas that are not deserts by USDA standards, individuals who reside there may not have the ability to get to areas where food is available.


According to the USDA, just over 6% of the U.S. population lives in “low-income and low access tracts and are more than one mile or 10 miles from a supermarket.” Additionally, the USDA notes that 9.2% of individuals living in the United States do not have a personal vehicle.

What is important to remember about food deserts is that they can lead to poor nutrition outcomes. Individuals who don’t have access to healthy foods for whatever reason may turn to unhealthy alternatives such as fast food restaurants. The CDC notes that poor nutrition puts individuals at a higher risk of becoming overweight and obese. This can be particularly prominent in food deserts. Additionally, individuals with poor nutrition can be at risk of other serious health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

Resources for Individuals Living in Food Deserts

Although there is an increasing awareness regarding food deserts and their potential harm, developing long-lasting solutions is not easy. Still, there are actions that can help.

Nutrition Education Resources

Understanding the benefits of maintaining proper nutrition may help individuals in food deserts. Additionally, those who have lived in food deserts for a significant portion of their lives may not be aware of how to maintain a healthy diet.

Healthline provides a list of health and nutrition tips that can benefit those living in food deserts. For example, not drinking sugary beverages, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and getting regular exercise are all tasks that individuals who are living in food deserts can achieve, even though they may not have regular access to healthy food.


Grocery Shopping and Diet Planning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a range of resources that can help individuals maintain proper nutrition. For example, the FDA published “Tips for Making Health Choices While Food Shopping” that shoppers can keep in mind when purchasing groceries, such as checking serving sizes, balancing calories, and buying canned fruits or frozen vegetables that may be less expensive.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Susannah Sneider also discusses various tips that can help individuals save money while grocery shopping. These include purchasing items when they are on sale, stocking up on inexpensive food items like rice and bananas, and prepping and planning meals ahead of time.

Exercise and Fitness

It may be difficult for individuals who are living in food deserts to avoid eating unhealthy items. But there are still ways that people can exercise and work to stay healthy.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that physical activity can help individuals control their weight, reduce fat, relieve stress, and more. Considering that living in a food desert can increase the risk of health issues such as diabetes, exercising can help there as well.

Resources for Communities and Organizations

Communities and organizations have a strong opportunity to help individuals in food deserts who may not have the resources or ability to access healthy and nutritious food.

Helping Those in Poverty Find Food

Depending on the income level of a person living in a food desert, they may currently be enrolled in or eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This program provides funds to lower-income individuals to be used for purchasing food.

The HealthyPeople.gov website describes how “a study has shown that a small financial incentive increased the use of SNAP benefits in participating farmers markets — resulting in increased access to healthy foods.” This type of solution helped address the unique problem that even if lower-income individuals desired to eat more nutritiously, they may not have money to purchase those food items. Food banks and pantries are also helpful organizations that can provide nutritious food to those who are living in food deserts. Feeding America provides a resource that can help individuals discover a local food bank near them. For those who may not be able to travel to locations that sell healthy foods, services such as Meals on Wheels and Food Rescue US donate and deliver healthy food to residents’ homes.

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Increasing Access to Healthy Foods

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides several resources that can help individuals in food deserts increase their access to healthy foods. One resource involves healthier food retail (HFR) initiatives, which can include “creating new food retail outlets that sell healthier foods; improving the quality, variety, and amount of healthier foods and beverages at existing stores; or promoting and marketing healthier foods and beverages to the consumer.”

Additional initiatives that the CDC mentions include improving healthier food access in smaller stores, developing transportation options to enable people to travel to food locations, and development tips for mobile retailers of healthy foods.

Educating Individuals About the Importance of Nutritious Eating

The USDA’s National Institute on Food and Agriculture offers the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). This program “uses education to support participants’ efforts toward self-sufficiency, nutritional health, and well-being.” The data shows that the program has helped people “improve their diets, improve their nutrition practices, stretch their food dollars further, handle food more safely, and increase their physical activity levels.”

SNAP-Ed is another educational resource that helps individuals understand the benefits of healthy eating, as well as how to help SNAP recipients make the most use of their funds. Locations for state programs can be found on the State SNAP-Ed Programs page.

Stop Food Deserts and Ensure Healthy Eating

Dealing with food deserts across the United States is a complex issue with no easy solutions. It is difficult for communities and cities to simply build more grocery stores, develop more transit options, or find ways to help individuals generate more income to purchase healthy foods.

In spite of this, there are still effective methods that can help individuals who are living in food deserts eat nutritiously. Educational resources, financial incentives, donations and deliveries, and health and fitness training are among the answers that can help people who are living in food deserts lead healthy lives.


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