The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 8, 2011

Healthy Food Access in Food Deserts

September 8, 2011

Research has confirmed that food deserts exist in communities across the US, giving the issue traction in media and public policy. The term “food desert” is typically applied to communities with high numbers of low-income residents who must travel unusually long distances—more than a mile—to the nearest store selling healthy food. Though the concept is typically linked to urban largely poor and minority communities, today many rural communities are also burdened by a severe lack of access to healthy foods.

Physical distance to healthy foods not only adds pressure to already vulnerable populations. It’s also a determining factor in resident behavior and preferences for unhealthy foods. Limited access to fresh produce, dairy, and meat products puts these populations at greater risk of such serious ailments as obesity, diabetes, chronic illness, and premature death. Often, many residents of food deserts are SNAP recipients. While much research indicates that SNAP users face many barriers in accessing vital social services, these residents also find it hard to redeem their benefits in their own communities.

Several national, state, and local initiatives aim to increase healthy food access and to provide innovative options to residents of food desert communities. Besides the traditional community gardens and farmers’ markets approach, some municipalities are supporting Healthy Corner Store Initiatives and Mobile Markets. These relatively efficient and low-cost approaches help supply under-served communities with immediate access to healthy fresh foods. Additionally, the Healthy Food Finance Initiative, which began as a successful statewide initiative in Pennsylvania and was adopted by the Obama administration in 2010, provides funds and technical assistance to incentivize the arrival of fresh food providers into distressed food desert communities.

Initiatives like these certainly help communities, but the way food deserts are commonly defined and determined frequently overlooks some important considerations. Often, high rates of poverty and long distances to grocers combine with such transport infrastructural barriers as vehicle unavailability, the high cost of vehicle use, and time. Including infrastructural barriers is a better way to measure food access since it captures the full extent of burden on residents. This fuller approach can be used to determine whether healthy food interventions, such as those mentioned above, are located in places where they will do the most good.

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