Do You Live in a Food Desert? Find Out

Food deserts occur when residents don't have the budget for, or local access to, healthy, affordable food. A new online tool can tell you if there are any in your area.

June 20, 2011

In some places, healthy food is hard to come by.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As defined by the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "food deserts" are places where nutritious food is beyond the easy reach or budget of the average consumer. It can be anyplace where a substantial number of residents classify as low-income, and/or they live far from or don’t have a car to get to a supermarket or large grocery store. Instead, they’re forced to shop in smaller stores that may not have a good choice of affordable, nutritious foods, or in "food swamps," places with easy access to an overflow of fast food or unhealthy (processed, refined, high-calorie, low-nutrition) choices.


THE DETAILS: About 10 percent of all 6,500 census tracts in this country qualify as food deserts, representing 13.5 million people, with 82 percent of these living in urban areas. Food deserts may contain households with a range of incomes, says ERS economist Michele Ver Ploeg, PhD, but specifically, the food desert designation means either that 20 percent of the census tract's population is living below the federal poverty line or that the median income of the census tract is at or below the area’s median income. Or that it’s a low-access community, with at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population living more than a mile from a supermarket (10 miles if the district is rural).

If all that sounds hard to figure out, you don't have to do the math. Ver Ploeg helped create the new online tool, the Food Desert Locator ( interactive map, which you can use to see how your neighborhood measures up. Plug in any address to go to a region. Food deserts will show up in pink. Data came from a 2006 directory of food stores and the 2000 Census, and was presented as a report to Congress in 2009.

WHAT IT MEANS: The Food Desert Locator came out of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative. Along with the Food Environment Atlas, the Food Desert Locator will help determine eligibility for grants awarded through a new Healthy Food Financing Initiative to put more grocery stores, farmer's markets, and other sources of healthy food in food deserts. It’s a partnership between the Treasury Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA.

Even if you don’t live in a food desert, you may be having a more difficult time these days putting good food on your family’s table. In New Hampshire, for example, a state that traditionally scores low in poverty and high in health, a 2010 Carsey Institute study found that "current levels of food insecurity are the highest since surveys were initiated [in 1995 by the USDA] and may well reflect the consequences of a deteriorating economy and increased unemployment."

Whether you're in a food desert or not, here are some suggestions to make it easier to find healthy food:

• Try SNAP. Perhaps you qualify for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), (formerly known as the food stamps program). Since 2009, the SNAP program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has included vouchers for buying fruits and vegetables, and many on-farm markets and farmer's markets now accept these.

• Cook affordably. Even if you don’t qualify for assistance, you can use the SNAP recipe finder to learn how to eat better and more economically in any terrain. The database has many suggestions for dishes made with low-cost, readily available ingredients, and provides USDA-verified nutrition values and cost per serving for each recipe. Example: Red Chile Stew made with pork, red chiles, and herbs costs 37 cents per serving; it’s from A River of Recipes: Native American Recipes Using Commodity Foods, prepared by the USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations. All recipes are available in Spanish, too.

• Get free cooking advice. Many of these recipes are provided by state cooperative extensions, which also offer nutrition and cooking classes. To find the office in your county, visit the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture website.

• Eat from your garden. You may want to take control of your food supply and grow your own. It’s quite economical. According to Burpee Seed Co., a garden costing $50 in seeds and supplies can yield $1,250 worth of food. And you don’t even need to own land to garden. The American Community Gardening Association lists cooperative gardens nationwide where you can rent a plot for a small fee. Check out for advice to get you started and keep you growing.

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