What's the Deal with...Food Deserts

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 14, 2014

You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo credit: USDA

See that map? It’s not, unfortunately, a map of America’s prettiest parks, or a guide to its best bike paths. Instead, it’s a guide to “low-income census tracts where a significant number or share of residents is more than one mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) from the nearest supermarket,” according to the USDA.

In plain English: Those green spots are known as “food deserts.” They’re communities where “the poverty rate is at least 20%,” and Americans have a tough time getting to the grocery store. For a better understanding of what that means for those stuck in a food desert, we spoke to author Kel Smith, whoseSXSW presentation illustrated his expertise in this arena—and the technology he intends to employ to make a difference.

What’s a food desert?

“It’s a term that was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture,” says Smith, to describe “any part of the industrialized world where healthy food like fruits and vegetables are difficult to obtain.” Smith reminded us that “food insecurity,” more commonly known as “not getting enough to eat,” affects 50 million Americans.

What’s its defining characteristic?

A food desert is a place in America where “logistics and a lack of options” contribute to an inability to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, making less healthful options that much more attractive. The worst case Smith has come across in his research was the single mother with two children in Washington, D.C.: She worked from noon until nine; after she returned home at night, she took her two kids along on the Metro and two buses to get to a grocery store. 

What’s the effect of food deserts?

"When people have these limited transportation options," asserts Smith, "they’re more likely to hit small local stores… stocked to the ceiling with junk products." The result arguably affects the health of those with limited choices; areas with food deserts often also have high obesity and diabetes rates. 

Is there any controversy about whether food deserts affect health?

Yes. “It’s very complex,” said Smith. (Other experts in poverty and food connections have called them a “flawed conceit.”) Smith pointed us to two studies mentioned in The New York Times that challenged the connection.

But he questioned some of the conclusions drawn, and challenged those who say people should simply make better choices: “’You should know better; you should eat an apple.’” Education is sorely lacking in many places, he says; “I’ve met people who really had no idea that carrots grow in the ground and oranges grow on trees.”

Culture, and even the weather, affect options in food deserts. “A 15-year-old girl in North Philadelphia, if she looks across the street and sees a McDonald’s, and she knows that there’s a grocery store a few blocks away, but her stomach is growling, it’s 3pm, all her friends are at McDonald’s, what’s she gonna do?” Smith posits that studies don’t take into account climate differences: “In San Diego it’s not a big deal to get on a bus and walk a few blocks.” In Chicago, in February, it’s a different story.

What is the government doing to change things?

Smith mentioned several USDA programs, among them the SNAP food stamp program (which was recently chopped down in scope by the Farm Bill), which lets you get more bang for your food stamp buck if you select more healthful options. 

How can technology help?

Smith directed us to studies showing that young, low-income people have more smartphones than one might expect: “People who live in lower-income neighborhoods don’t buy computers; they do everything via smartphone.” He developed an app called Real Food Farm to work in collaboration with a Baltimore farm’s mobile truck. The free app allows users to order fruit and vegetables for home delivery, or find out when the mobile market would hit their neighborhood. 

How can the average person help?

“These urban farmers pretty much…operate at a loss the rest of the year,” says Smith, so support them by shopping at your own local farmer’s market.

That’s the sort of tip we can get behind…just as soon as the weather turns.