By Elena Cleaves

Areas with limited access to healthful food, referred to as “food deserts,” cause food insecurity for rural and poor communities across the U.S. and the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the problem. Food insecurity, defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to a lack of money or other resources, is also influenced by factors including race/ethnicity, disability, and employment. The pandemic’s resulting unemployment rates and economic crisis amplify how the intersections of low-income and unaffordable/inaccessible health services create and perpetuate food insecurity when an area’s residents do not have access to affordable, healthful food.

Defining characteristics

Three main factors in whether an area has a food desert are: proximity to food stores that meet certain standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), whether residents own a vehicle, and household income compared to local food prices. Other factors include population size and density, high levels of unemployment, and access to public transportation. A lack of transportation to food stores can create a food desert in sparse rural areas because if individuals do not own a vehicle and have no affordable public transport nearby, they may not be able to access healthy foods, even if income is not a relevant factor.

In contrast, some urban areas have an abundance of stores nearby, but residents can’t afford them, such as some low-income ethnic minority neighborhoods compared to their wealthy white counterparts, as found by a USDA report. Even if affordable convenience or grocery stores are close by, these don’t always meet the USDA’s criteria including the amount of fresh produce available or variety/quality of the food sold. Other problems include price differences and language barriers in stores where owners can set their own prices, as well as locating foods that meet specific religious, cultural, or dietary restrictions.

A report by Food Empowerment Project warns that data on food deserts could also be skewed specifically due to some corner grocery stores that don’t meet these standards being lumped together with larger supermarkets that do, such as Whole Foods. Because of these differences, there are no uniform characteristics of populations living in food deserts, although race and disability status are notable factors due to disproportionate rates of unemployment and low income.

Counting the cost

Not only does eating nutritionally require access and affordability, it also oftentimes requires preparation – which takes time, energy, and equipment. Families needing to feed several mouths quickly, easily, and inexpensively are understandably going to turn to convenient options like fast food restaurants which can provide a hot meal for everyone for a decent price. Fast food meals are generally loaded with sodium, sugar, and unhealthful fats and over time, diets overwhelmingly consisting of these types of foods can lead to more serious health problems such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and an increased prevalence of diabetes. Food insecurity can similarly lead to obesity and other health problems in adults but especially in children who grow up experiencing it, leading to developmental problems and a negative impact on their mental health.

This is especially a concern during the COVID-19 pandemic as eviction moratoriums expire and 30-40 million are at risk of homelessness and displacement. Families experiencing homelessness and children raised in it already face higher risk of various health concerns, now amplified further by food insecurity. A lack of access to affordable nutritional food or a kitchen to prepare it in creates the need for an easy solution such as fast food. A majority fast food diet over time leads to health complications added on to any pre-existing issues. A lack of health insurance or access to health services, the one notable commonality across food deserts, worsens these complications.

Rural areas again may lack access due to issues with transportation or proximity while low- income areas struggle with affordability, job loss, and loss of health insurance. A diet of mostly fast food due solely to necessity and availability, paired with limited or no health care, can cause serious and potentially fatal health outcomes if left untreated. This especially affects people of color and people with disabilities who already have higher rates of mental and physical health issues due to disproportionately experiencing unemployment and eviction. It is imperative to consider the intersections at which communities in food deserts are disproportionately affected when observing their demographics and the societal cycles that create and perpetuate them.

The pandemic’s sweeping closure of businesses, as well as property damage amid social justice protests this summer, cut off access to food, prescriptions, and other necessities in some areas. Cities including Minneapolis and St. Paul saw food deserts appear “overnight” after grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses closed. While these cities saw neighbors rush to start food and supply drives immediately following the May protests, food banks across the U.S. were depleted quickly in the following months. They also saw a decline in volunteers, mostly older retirees, as they stayed home to decrease risk of exposure to COVID-19, eventually leading some organizations to shut down completely.

Food prices are also being affected in surviving grocery stores, with especially sharp price increases in meat, dairy, and eggs after supply shortages earlier in the year following waves of panic-buying during the pandemic’s initial outbreak. Prices have fluctuated but mostly returned to normal as restaurants have opened and stay-at-home orders relaxed but may rise again if closures and quarantine procedures resume. The loss of food stores and increase of food prices throughout the U.S. due to the pandemic will lead to food deserts if the problem and especially the roots of such are not addressed quickly.

Addressing the barriers

To better understand food deserts, it is imperative we understand the people and areas affected. Future studies should focus on the communities experiencing food insecurity and how the demographics within are affected disproportionately. They should especially focus on how Black and Brown communities are at higher risk of experiencing the other factors that lead to food deserts, causing inescapable cycles of poverty and homelessness. More insight into these intersections will provide clarity on how food deserts come to exist and highlight flaws within bigger systems such as public transportation, city planning, housing, and more.

The UDSA’s Economic Research Service (ERS)-created Food Desert Locator and Food Desert Atlas allow users to see census-based statistics on searched food desert populations including age, income, and whether the household owns a vehicle. A study from the University of Texas at Dallas suggests using crowdsourced data, such as price reviews of grocery store items from Yelp users, to provide more accurate real-time representation of food deserts. This data could help build more accurate mapping of these locations in the U.S., improving upon the current atlas.

Sustainable food projects, like those funded by the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program, are also a part of the solution. Quarantine orders earlier in the year kept people busy with new hobbies at home including gardening and bread-baking – nurturing and time-killing activities that also provide food security during grocery shortages. Empowering and educating people to grow and prepare their own food, whether it is patio plants, community gardens, or produce from local farmer’s markets, are great ways to encourage sustainable food.

One example is Chicago where food activists have introduced fresh produce co-ops in areas where supermarkets have been unsuccessful as well as offer nutrition and cooking classes. L.A. took a different approach to combatting food deserts by providing a financial incentive to health-mindful restaurants to open in underserved communities. Food assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, the Women, Infants, and Children program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also address barriers to accessing healthy food.

Combatting food deserts and food insecurity, especially after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, will take effort at all levels from individual to federal. Individuals and their communities should seek sustainable food solutions outside of food stores. Local governments should consider food deserts and all factors influencing them while city planning, ensuring physical access to food stores via proximity and/or public transportation access. Local, state, and federal governments must also observe how the communities within food deserts are impacted differently between race/ethnicity, income, familial status, disability status, and housing status, and act accordingly. While access and affordability to food stores are a priority of any proposed solutions, they are not the sole problem which must be fixed. Many of the factors influencing food deserts also affect cycles of poverty and homelessness which disproportionately affect marginalized communities and therefore will take layered, socially conscious solutions to adequately resolve.