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  • Writer's pictureMark Thompson

What is a food desert?

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

When talking about hunger in a community, certain terms are often used that may be confusing to those new to these discussions. One of the most common is the phrase "food desert". Let's unpack the meaning of food deserts and learn more about what it means in regards to food justice for our neighbors.

Broadly, a food desert is any geographic area that has little or no access to healthy, affordable food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert more specifically, stipulating that in urban areas residents are more than one mile from a supermarket and in rural settings, ten miles. To facilitate their studies the USDA only looks at large markets as it would be impossible to inventory the shelves at smaller, independent shops, markets, and convenience stores.

A map highlighting areas of Sanford, Florida that are considered food deserts. About 1/3 of the map is highlighted.
Screen capture of USDA food desert locator map showing parts of the Sanford area that meet their criteria.

Food that is found in food deserts is more expensive.

If fresh foods are available in an area deemed a food desert, they are more expensive. Most folks in these zones are lower income, so this exacerbates the problem of purchasing food on a limited budget. These retailers don't have the same purchasing power as the large markets, nor do they have the margins to cover the risk of offering perishable goods. So customers end up paying more for a smaller selection of less healthy, less appealing products.

The paradox: If you have a car, you can save money on groceries.

Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to the struggle to procure groceries in food deserts. Many of the residents of food deserts do not own cars, and public transportation is often sparse, difficult, or unsafe. This limiting of grocery options is yet another ironic twist to food justice - those who need the most to save money on food are the least able to physically get there. Middle-class suburbs often have easy access not just to grocery stores, but also to discount clubs and farmers markets. So to save money on groceries, you first must earn and save enough for an automobile, and then you can drive across town to save on your groceries.

Almost everything in a food desert is unhealthy.

Aside from cost and transportation, the other common issue is variety. Corner stores, bodegas, liquor stores, fast food spots, and convenience stores in the area are not likely to have fresh, beautiful fruits and vegetables (or meat or dairy). What is stocked is generally ultra-processed, pre-packaged, nutrient-stripped, and imperishable. When local residents are able to purchase food, it is high in calories and low in beneficial nutrition. This is one reason why even in a place where people are struggling to eat, obesity is often a correlated issue.

Food Apartheid > Food Desert

The term "food desert" has fallen from favor recently, as we now see how race and class, in addition to distance, greatly affects the access to fresh, nutritious foods. "Food apartheid" is growing to be the favored term as it encompasses the whole food system including factors of race, economics, faith, and environment, and often emphasizes community input and participation.

What is being done?

Food justice is a complex, monumental issue in neighborhoods in our city and in communities around the world. There are many good people and organizations trying to imagine better food systems, and are enacting tangible programs to combat hunger. What does it look like? Food pantries, grocery co-ops, urban agriculture, community gardens, meal delivery, farmers markets, food trucks, youth education and more.

To learn how Picnic Project is working towards food justice in Sanford, visit our to browse, contact us, or plan a visit.

Further Reading:

Food Empowerment Project - Food Deserts*


Wikipedia - Food Desert


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