What Are Food Deserts — and How Are They Impacting Healthcare?

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The term “food desert” paints an accurate picture of a dire situation that many Americans face daily. In short, a food desert is a geographic area where residents’ access to affordable, nutritious food is limited or nonexistent because of a lack of convenient grocery stores.

The nonprofit Food Empowerment Project (FEP) rightly points out that the term “food desert,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is problematic because it centers on “proximity to food providers, rather than considering other factors such as racism, cost of living, people being time poor and cash poor, cultural appropriateness of available foods, [and] the ability of people to grow their own foods.” The FEP also notes that “food apartheid” and “food oppression,” although less common, are more accurate terms because they point to the systemic issues that force folks into food deserts.

So, how widespread is food oppression? According to a 2017 report from the USDA, nearly 39.5 million Americans live in low-income and low-access areas (or what the USDA has termed “food deserts”). Of these nearly 40 million people, half have limited access to full-fledged supermarkets or grocery stores. Without a doubt, food deserts — that is, food oppression — underscore(s) the various inequities that exist in the United States, and, in turn, create additional health-related challenges for folks living within them.