Can Food Deserts Become Oases?

Map of food deserts in the United States

In one short but memorable scene in the documentary Soul Food Junkies (premiering on Independent Lens Jan. 14), filmmaker Byron Hurt interviews a woman who just can’t find decent, healthy food in her neighborhood. She gives a local market an earful when she repeatedly sees vegetables “that look like they’re having a nervous breakdown. I tell them ‘How dare you do this? How dare you put this out in this community?’ ” she says.

Sonia Sanchez is not alone in her desire for better quality food and the inability to find it nearby. Like millions of other Americans, Sanchez lives in a food desert — a low-income community with little or no access to a supermarket or grocery store. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat can feel like a far-off mirage, so residents of food deserts tend to get their food at ubiquitous fast-food restaurants and corner stores. It’s no surprise that food desert residents tend to have high levels of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

According to the USDA, about 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the United States meet the definition of a food desert. Some 13.5 million people live in these food deserts, with the majority of this population—82 percent—living in urban areas.

Food Desert Locator

Click the image above to find maps and in-depth info about food deserts all over the US.

The USDA has an excellent food desert locator map online tool that will give you a better idea of where food deserts are, and census information about the areas. You can even find population characteristics about each tract within a food desert.

As you see in the map above, food deserts dot the country. In some places, they paint it in wide swaths. Sometimes they’re in areas where you’d least expect them to be. In fact, not far from the Independent Lens office in our tourist-haven, world-class city of San Francisco, we’ve got a couple of pretty significant food deserts. NewsOne ranks San Francisco No. 6 on its list of the worst urban food deserts in the United States.

Food deserts often exist in the shadows of great cities. The bountiful oases of grocery stories piled with fresh produce can be relatively close to food deserts, yet completely out of reach for many.

It’s a cruel irony. But this proximity also brings potential solutions: Cities are helping create urban gardens in empty lots, cultivating an appetite for healthy food and the empowerment of growing it. Food-desert neighborhoods are creating space for farmers’ markets. And grocers from other neighborhoods are starting to bring their bounties into food deserts. Pop-up groceries — where local grocers bring buses or trucks filled with fresh and healthy food into low-income neighborhoods — have been a hit wherever they’ve launched.

The idea is that if healthy choices are available, people will buy them. And that works to an extent. But old habits die hard. A 15-year longitudinal study found that upping the number of grocery stores in low-income areas didn’t result in people automatically buying healthier food.

“Just because you build it, doesn’t mean you will change people’s behavior,” study author Barry Popkin, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a Time magazine article. “Price, quality, accessibility, incentives, they matter too. Every community is different, but new efforts or supplementing existing infrastructure works if they’re accompanied with affordable prices, education, promotion or community collaboration.”

Byron Hurt

Filmmaker Byron Hurt hopes Soul Food Junkies will help change eating habits for a healthier future

Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based national nonprofit that supports easy access to safe and healthy foods, says the transition from a lifetime of unhealthy food can be a challenge. “Once people get into that mold of eating bad food, their first taste of really good food tastes strange,” he says in Soul Food Junkies. He believes education is paramount if palates are going to change.

Food deserts aren’t going away any time soon. But with community efforts, education, pop-up markets, accessible farmers’ markets, community gardens, more grocery stores, a better scenario is more than a mirage. “The kids are passing on the word to their parents and other adults in the community,” says Allen. “To me, this is a multicultural, multigenerational revolution.”

Soul Food Junkies filmmaker Hurt is hopeful that his film will be part of this revolution.

“I hope this film makes it easier for families and communities to talk openly and honestly about the impact food has on their lives and their health,” he recently told Independent Lens. “I also hope this film will be used widely as a discussion starter in communities of color around food consumption, health, wellness, and fitness.”

Learn more about Soul Food Junkies.

Get cookin’ with some alternative soul food-inspired recipes.

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  • Terry

    Regarding the USDA map, I looked at both the area where I live and the area where I grew up. Areas in or close by were considered a food desert. I’m sure the base data was accurate but the interpretation was just flat wrong. In rural Missouri it showed large areas as food deserts but I was there this summer and we had great choices in both grocery stores and road side stands for vegetables. I bought watermelon, tomatoes, and squash from a road side farmers market who said he got the produce from the Amish. I also saw official farmers markets. I think this can be a serious problem, people lacking the availability of healthy food but the USDA map was just wrong. In rural places people regularly drive to town to conduct all kinds of business. When I talk to my relatives back in Missouri they talk about their vegetable gardens like the rest of the country talks about the local sports team. These people have good food and do NOT live in a food desert in reality. If they want fresh produce they have great access by growing it or by driving to their nearest town.

  • Amiablejak

    I pulled up my area and one of the supposed deserts actually
    backs up to the corner where a Shop-n-Save is located. Another is on the street where a Save a Lot is located. What is the definition? Who is making
    these decisions? Are there problems getting fresh food to some people –
    sure. But don’t believe everything you read! This map is just untrue.

  • Not Dumb As Some

    For the uninformed, “food desert” doesn’t imply just reasonable access to food, but also pricing these foods for the community. Not everyone drives and for most, the idea of getting on a bus to buy fruit that is overpriced is ridiculous. Also, it means that fresh fruit is available, but not always blemish-free or ripe.

  • Dillard

    I am speaking for myself and the millions who do not have cable tv and/ or internet access and/or a home. People who have a reliable car, money for food and transit, or a safe neighborhood to traverse need to wake up and smell the coffee–too many citizens do not have this–especially seniors, minors, disabled who are over represented in poverty. It took me 3 months to “take the time” to renew my driver’s license last year.An NGO delivers poor quality, expired and tired food to my home, the major chains refuse. I still count myself blessed to have a home and reasonable food to eat but since becoming disabled I have become dependent on my husband’s income though I am a degree-holding professional…

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  • A.J.

    I believe that the concept of food deserts has as much to do with the disparity of food pricing in certain areas versus others, as well as the quality of the food itself. It’s bad enough when someone does not have access to healthier food choices because of location; the situation gets worse when the prices for healthier foods are much steeper. There are many fruit and vegetable carts around, but the quality of the fruit itself may not be the best. And I agree that the USDA chart is off.

  • Tina M.Willis

    Blacks still eat better than Native Americans!