top of page

Food Deserts in the U.S. (Part 1)

There are numerous hypotheses about how food deserts emerged in the United States. One hypothesis has been linked to stores opening and closing (Guy et al., 2004). According to Miller et al. (2016), 291 grocery stores were expected to close in the U.S. in 2015. As grocery stores leave city cores, suburban retail food establishments are rising (Pine & Bennett, 2014). Another explanation for the development of inner-city food deserts relates to shifts in the population of bigger American cities between 1970 and 1988. Economic segregation is thought to have increased during this time as more affluent households moved out of inner cities and into the suburbs (Walker et al., 2010). Other significant factors include higher expenses involved with healthy food and residents' constrained access to healthful meals in many metropolitan areas due to a supermarket shortage. Most importantly, living in a food desert can be much more detrimental for inhabitants without access to private transportation, and hence, without access to food outlets outside their nearby community (Lake and Townshend, 2006).

Overall, areas identified as food deserts are not only defined by grocery access, but also by other socio-demographic factors (e.g., income, education, vehicle ownership, public transit connectivity, etc.). It was identified that regardless of the rural or urban area, the lower the income is, the higher the chances of falling into a food desert area. In addition, dense urban areas with higher minority occupants, distance from the store, and population growth also play an important role in defining food deserts (2012 USDA). Therefore, the primary criteria for food deserts include Lower income, Percentage minority residents, Access to privately-owned vehicles, Lower education level, Access to public transport, Distance from the supermarket, and Number of abandoned buildings and low-income housing.

Significant transportation barriers to accessing healthy foods

The literature on food deserts primarily focuses on topics, such as 'health,' socio-demographics,' and 'access to grocery stores.’ There are very few articles that examine solely transportation-related problems and solutions. Therefore, SPLUSM has attempted to investigate those sources that consider transportation-related barriers in a food desert.

Impact of Transportation Disparities on Socio-demographic Status

In the socio-demographic context, food disparity also reveals inequality in society's access to food. Repurposing urban districts for high- and low-income housing without enhancing access to public transportation or products and services has contributed significantly to the emergence of modern food deserts (Deener, 2017). In the past, zoning laws and land use restrictions have been adopted throughout the United States to preserve property values and lower crime rates. However, urban sprawl mainly caused by the Third Industrial Revolution resulted in zoning rules shifting their focus from zoning to urban planning, separating incompatible land uses like industrial, commercial, residential, and recreational. As a result, conflicting land use grew inside residential zoning to divide high-, middle-, and low-income housing, which has continued to structurally disadvantage poorer populations by dividing the areas that they can afford to live in from the larger community (Serkin, 2020). As a result, food deserts and oases are becoming more prevalent, and violence is disproportionately distributed between and within communities as a result of this practice (Battin & Crowl, 2017; Brantingham, 2016; Jones & Pridemore, 2018).

The United States also differs significantly from other high-gross domestic income nations like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom regarding food supply and availability (Beaulac et al., 2009). In contrast to the United States, which frequently suffers food disparities based on class and race, other developed countries experiences with food-related inequality in underprivileged areas are rare and limited (Alkerwi et al., 2015). The percentage of black and Hispanic families living in poverty is more than double that of white households (Lynch, 2016; Matthew, 2018). Communities, primarily minorities, with more significant percentages of black Americans, tend to have higher concentrations of food deserts (Kane 2011). Due to the way that food insecurity exacerbates other types of structural disadvantages, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to this phenomenon as "deprivation amplification."

According to the 2021 USDA household food security report till 2020, 89.5% of households were food secured, whereas 10.5% (13.8 million) were insecure. 7.6% (2.9 million homes) of families with children were food insecure in 2020, increasing from 6.5% in 2019. On average, food-secure households in the same demographic group spent 18% more money than food-insecure households did. Approximately 55% of families responded that they participated in one of the three most extensive federal food support systems in the month before the survey. During the pandemic, from mid-November to mid-December (30 days), food insecurity was higher than the national average of 5.7%. It was 16.4% for households with a reference person who was unable to work and 20.4% for those who were unemployed (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2021).

Transportation is crucial to access food and is a significant factor for those residing in food deserts. Different studies have revealed transportation as an obstacle for residents to access food. Low-cost grocery stores were frequently located far from participants' homes and were unreachable without a car or public transit (Vahabi and Damba 2013). Facilities for public transit and personal vehicle usage are critical factors for resource accessibility in urban areas. For residents of food deserts, access to services like supermarkets, open spaces, decent work, medical services, and quality education is restricted; however, these resources continue to be significant draws for wealthy newcomers who can afford private transportation to and from them (Acevedo-Garcia et al., 2020). In addition, the choice of low-income, racial minorities to buy unhealthful, calorie-dense foods are greatly influenced by how easily they can reach stores and groceries that sell affordable food options (Walker et al., 2011).

Thus, public transportation becomes increasingly crucial when inhabitants need to access grocery stores and other food sellers, especially in locations where grocery stores are limited (Hardman, 2016; Safe Routes to School National Partnership, 2017). A study on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) users found that experts thought lack of transportation to a farmer's market was the biggest hurdle for low-income consumers. Farmer markets are often found in wealthy neighborhoods, according to stakeholders, who are worried that low-income customers without access to reliable transportation may not even be capable of walking to the farmer's market or conveniently transporting products home (Ritter 2019).


bottom of page