In some regions worldwide, people lack access to nutritious foods that promote health and well-being. Areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods are known as food deserts.
Coming up with solutions to food deserts requires identifying what they are. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers various definitions, but it generally describes food deserts as regions where individuals have limited access to stores that provide fresh and healthy options. The measure by which a food desert is defined depends on factors such as distance to a store, number of stores available, income level or individual vehicle access.
Food deserts can contribute to food insecurity, which the USDA defines as reduced quality of diet or disrupted eating patterns. In the U.S., 10.2 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2021, according to data about food security and nutrition assistance from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Of these, 5.1 million households struggled with very low food security.
Poverty is a primary cause, with USDA data revealing that 32.1 percent of U.S. households below the federal poverty line faced food insecurity. Race, ethnicity and geography also play a role. For example, the USDA also reports that Black and Hispanic households have a higher food insecurity rate than the national average.
However, it’s important to note that food insecurity can be experienced both inside and outside of food deserts. While food deserts are often associated with limited access to healthy food options, not all individuals living in these areas necessarily lack access to nutritious food. For example, individuals with vehicles may still be able to drive to larger grocery stores.
Farmers markets — temporary marketplaces where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold directly to consumers — can play an important role in food desert communities. These mobile healthy food marketplaces can serve as a flexible solution to food deserts, helping underserved families and individuals access fresh, healthy, locally produced food.
Food deserts are places with little to no options for buying healthy foods. High-poverty areas and remote rural regions are the most affected.
Food desert populations in the U.S. face difficulty accessing fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables. One reason is that grocery stores with healthy food options are nonexistent. When grocery stores are available, they may be too inconvenient to get to. For example, a lack of transportation can make it difficult to access stores to buy foods that promote health. Also, sometimes, when fruits and vegetables are available, they’re of low quality.
The following resources provide additional information about food deserts, their causes and their relationship to human health:
A healthy diet includes various types of foods, including fruits and vegetables; whole grains; and healthy, low-fat, nutrient-rich dairy and protein.
People living in food deserts often have limited access to these nutritious foods. This can lead to a reliance on foods high in saturated fat and trans fatty acids, added sugars, and sodium. Additional impacts of food deserts on human health can include limited or unaffordable health care services.
These factors can lead to a higher incidence of chronic disease. Common diseases in food desert communities include obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There’s also growing evidence that food deserts can impact mental health.
Individuals in food deserts may have a higher risk of developing chronic diseases. For example, obesity is a primary health problem associated with food deserts. Individuals in food deserts often rely on food high in calories, sugar and fat, such as fast food and processed snacks. Research shows that overeating these foods can lead to obesity.
With obesity comes an increased risk of other chronic diseases. For example, a strong link between food insecurity and diabetes exists. A recent study published in Diabetes Care indicated that Americans with diabetes were much more likely to experience food insecurity than those without diabetes (16 vs. 9 percent). By consuming more processed foods and sugary drinks, individuals in food deserts can develop insulin resistance, resulting in Type 2 diabetes.
Cardiovascular disease is another health problem linked to food deserts. Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients and antioxidants that promote heart health. However, without access to these foods, individuals in food deserts face a higher risk of elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, critical factors in the development of heart disease.
Food deserts and food insecurity can also affect mental health. People with food insecurity had a higher risk of anxiety and depression — 257 and 253 percent, respectively — than those with food security, according to a study published in BMC Public Health.
It can be stressful for people in food deserts to get healthy food. Parents, for example, who want to provide nutritious meals to their children, may be unable to. Stress can affect mental health, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety.
In another example, individuals with diabetes face complex challenges in managing their health. They must monitor their blood glucose to avoid complications. Monitoring can be done with a finger stick and glucose meter or with a continuous glucose monitoring device. The blood glucose readings help them determine how to adjust their diets and medicine injections. However, with limited access to healthy foods, this journey can strain their emotions. This emotional reaction is known as diabetes-related distress.
Food deserts are often geographically isolated, like rural communities. Resources and social support are often limited in low-income, marginalized communities. This can lead to the social isolation of individuals living in food deserts, impacting mental health. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.
Farmers markets can help promote food security. They offer a practical approach to improving access to food in food deserts. Farmers markets can also cost less to set up, are mobile and need less space than stores.
The relationship between food deserts and farmers markets can go beyond providing access to nutritious food. They can also serve as a resource, with market workers or volunteers guiding individuals on how to store and prepare fresh foods.
Farmers markets that accept benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) help promote food equity. The entitlement program allows low-income individuals and families to buy healthy food with government-issued funds.
Additionally, farmers markets create opportunities for local farmers and producers. For example, farmers from underprivileged backgrounds can sell their goods directly to consumers at a fairer price, helping them sustain their livelihoods.
Farmers markets are proving to be pivotal to establishing a more fair food chain. These markets are usually situated in public places, such as town squares, educational institutions and medical centers.
Some of the most efficient and creative farmers markets are established by grassroots groups cooperating directly with the people who they’re helping. Others are mobile farmers markets, which can be a resourceful approach in expanding access to fresh produce for communities that lack access to healthy food. Even hospitals are getting in on the action, hosting farmers and mobile markets on site.
Here are some examples of successful farmers markets and initiatives:
In 2011, Ron Finley, a food justice activist from Los Angeles, California, grew weary of having to journey 45 minutes to get healthy food. He converted a 150-by-10-foot median strip of land in front of his residence into an edible garden. However, the path to success wasn’t easy. He met resistance from the municipality, which required him to pay a penalty fee. He fought the order and won. Thanks to an international fundraising campaign, and persistence, the Ron Finley Project now owns the land. Finley’s TED talk about his experience has been viewed by 4 million people.
The Works offers several innovative solutions to food deserts in parts of Memphis, Tennessee. Through its Mobile Grocer, a refrigerated, 44-foot-long vehicle loaded with fresh, nutritious foods makes its way to Memphis neighborhoods with a lack of access to healthy foods. Individuals can pay with cash or SNAP benefits. The Works also offers its South Memphis Farmers Market.
Besides bringing fresh, locally cultivated, nutritious foods to Chicago’s neighborhoods, Urban Growers Collective aims to improve the livelihoods of the city’s urban farmers. The Black- and women-led organization’s Fresh Moves Mobile Market is a mobile farmers market that aims to reduce food inequity in Chicago’s neighborhoods. It provides produce to schools, community centers, churches and health clinics.
Other examples of solutions to food deserts are the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture Mobile Market in Washington, D.C.; the FEED Center Mobile Marketplace in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Farmshare Austin in Austin, Texas; and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Starting or expanding a farmers market requires careful planning and consideration. Here are some important factors to keep in mind:
A farmers market should be easily accessible and visible to potential customers. Local food directories can help individuals find farmers markets as well. Farmers markets should have ample parking and be near public transportation.
Farmers markets need to follow local rules and procedures, and ordinances and regulations at the municipality, state and federal levels. Be sure to research and purchase the relevant permits and licenses. Be mindful of food safety guidelines. In some cases, liability insurance for the market may be required.
Operating a farmers market requires a lot of logistical coordination. Considerations include managing schedules and payment methods. Because the structures in farmers markets are typically temporary, it’s important to consider the setup and breakdown processes.
Farmers markets are more than marketplaces; they’re community gathering spaces. When planning for a farmers market, engaging with community leaders and patrons is important. This can be achieved by hosting educational workshops and partnering with local businesses and organizations. A strong sense of community is a cornerstone to helping ensure long-term success for farmers markets.
The following resources provide additional information on what’s needed and what to consider when starting or expanding a farmers market:
Shedding light on the significant impact of food deserts on human health is a critical step in addressing food insecurity, which is a key social determinant of health. The lack of healthy food options in these areas can lead to chronic illnesses. such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, a potential solution to food deserts includes local farmers markets, which can provide better access to healthy foods. Through education and building awareness about healthy eating habits, key steps can be made to empower affected communities in food deserts to empower themselves to take control of their health and well-being.
Communities with access to healthy food options are better equipped to maintain a healthy diet, leading to better health outcomes, including a reduced risk of chronic illness. By promoting food equity, we can also support local farmers and stimulate economic growth in these communities.
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