May 12, 2011
Traditionally, the United States is portrayed as a land of plenty, yet many people live in areas without ready access to fruits, vegetables, whole grains and the other foods that compose a healthy, well-balanced diet. These areas are known as food deserts, and living in one can have serious ramifications on one’s health; it’s a risk factor for obesity and cardiovascular disease induced by junk food-heavy diets. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a close correlation between income level and ethnic background and the likelihood of living in a food desert, with poor, non-white populations being at a higher risk.
In 2008, 2009, as a part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, the USDA’s Economic Research Service began gathering data about areas of the United States with limited access to healthy food, resulting in the Food Desert Locator, which launched last week. Here, food deserts are defined as census tracts with a high poverty rate that are more than one mile away (in an urban setting) or 10 miles away (in a rural setting) from a supermarket or large grocery store. You can also look at other statistics such as how many people within a census tract do not have a car. (If you own a car, making a mile-long trip to the store isn’t so bad; but if you can’t afford one, hoofing a mile carrying bags full of groceries is task most people would just as soon avoid.) This tool allows users to search a map of the United States to look at food desert statistics for a given area—and there are a lot of red patches on the map. Approximately 23.5 13.5 million Americans are living in food deserts, most of whom live in urban areas. With major supermarket chains keeping away from low income urban areas, the price of healthy options such as fresh produce are beyond people’s means since corner convenience store-type establishments sell those items at much higher prices.
The tool might spur local efforts to eradicate food deserts with solutions such as urban farming or Detroit’s Green Grocer Project, which provides grocers with funding to establish a sustainable, successful business.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.