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Food Deserts | Why Do They Exist?

Income inequality is on the rise in many parts of the world today. Even in countries that are considered wealthy, not everyone has equal access to food. Here are some factors that make it even more difficult for socioeconomically disadvantaged communities to access healthy food.

What is a food desert? 

Originating in Scotland in the early 1990s, the term has since been used to describe areas without easy access to nutritious food - like fruits and vegetables - or affordable grocery stores.1 The term is often used as a way to demarcate disadvantaged areas within a country or region where some residents have relatively better access to healthy food than others. But a food desert isn’t solely restricted to areas with long distances between shops or grocery stores. Even in a prosperous city that otherwise offers its residents ample grocery store options, you could still have underdeveloped pockets or peripheral suburbs without access to food stores selling affordable produce. You could also be surrounded by grocery stores, yet still find yourself well within the bounds of a food desert if the food those shops provide is not nutritious or affordable.

Studies investigating food deserts often focus on the United States due to the large disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and regions. Therefore, a lot of what we know about food deserts and their impact on health is in the context of the social, political, and geographical conditions in the United States. But the phenomenon is far from limited to the US, and there are patterns of unequal food accessibility within Europe and abroad that are impacting our daily food environments. And the impacts of those restricted food environments have led to a number of issues when it comes to our health. Many studies from around the world have recognised food deserts as obesogenic environments, meaning that they enable a lifestyle leading to obesity or overweight.2 US-focussed studies point to a correlation between food deserts - which are predominantly inhabited by minority communities - and negative health outcomes such as obesity.2 From a global perspective, however, the relationship between minority status, socioeconomic factors, and food access varies considerably.2 

The proximity of high-speed traffic to residential areas can create unsafe conditions for pedestrians, making food less accessible to those without vehicles.

Why do food deserts exist? 

In different parts of the world, food deserts can look quite different and access to nutritious and affordable food is determined by a huge variety of factors - such as dietary preferences, relative prosperity, culture, or even cooking skills. These factors will differ depending on where you live, but there are a few key patterns that can help you understand whether or not you may be living in a food desert.

1. Proximity to stores

Firstly, food deserts may be created simply due to a lack of enough grocery stores in a particular region - like supermarkets, general stores or farmers’ markets. These regions might be overlooked by entrepreneurs or retail chains for being sparsely populated, or simply because the residents are not seen as the target demographic for their business. Without nearby options, many are forced to travel longer distances to the grocery store - limiting those with less money from taking public transport or fuelling their car.

2. A lack of nutritious options

Even if you are surrounded by food providing shops, there is still the issue of what types of foods these stores offer their customers. While some areas might have a sufficient number of grocery stores, they may not carry fresh produce by choice, they may lack supply, or they may be more focussed on promoting an imbalanced amount of unhealthy foods to increase profits or target certain demographics.

3. Affordability

Being close to a food store does not always mean that consumers will be able to afford to shop there, that they find the store attractive, or that they wish to be seen shopping there.3 While some of these factors might seem trivial, they do have an significant impact on how accessible certain foods are for certain groups of people. For instance, certain neighbourhoods known for attracting tourists may only have food stores that sell highly priced products. Residents of these neighbourhoods might find these stores to be too expensive for their weekly grocery needs. Similarly, gentrification can also lead to the residents of a neighbourhood losing access to affordable food as prices rise along with the influx of new wealthier residents.

Pauline McKinney leaves the charity food bank in her Miami neighborhood. For the elderly, even comparatively short walking distances to access food can pose significant challenges. (Getty/Joe Raedle)

Overlooked causes around the world

On top of the key causes, there are also a whole host of less obvious factors that can lead to the creation of food deserts. Barriers to access can also be created purely based on the residents’ personal circumstances, with food deserts impacting only certain individuals living in a neighbourhood and not others.4 For example, elderly people isolated from their families and neighbours are often unable to access affordable nutritious food due to restricted mobility or health issues.6

Others lacking the ability to travel may not be familiar enough with technology to order their groceries online. For individuals working irregular hours, many could find it challenging to find a suitable time to go grocery shopping outside of regular grocery shop working hours. Shoppers from poor households might avoid wasting money on foods that will not be consumed by certain family members such as children, or mothers might choose to reach for the biscuit barrel when hungry while feeding other members of the family a healthier diet.7, 5 Additionally, making decisions when purchasing food is also heavily influenced by the shoppers’ knowledge about nutrition and their interest in consuming healthy food. As you can see, the list of causes is long, complicated and not one that is easily resolved by any single action or policy. But there may be hope for a resolution to the issue. 

Can we fix food deserts?

Until recently, US policy makers addressed the issue of food deserts by encouraging supermarket chains to open stores in areas that require them. However, activists and social justice advocates have pointed out that access to food is a systemic issue and fixing a food desert requires more than opening a new supermarket or two in affected areas.1,8 Research suggests that complementary actions such as encouraging community-led entrepreneurship, providing more price support for farmers, raising minimum wages, educating community members about nutrition, and restricting the promotion of unhealthy foods are important to improve food access.1,8,9,10 Considering that different food desert communities face different challenges unique to their social, cultural, and economic circumstances, solutions must be tailored to their needs and respective situations.

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