The Socio-Economic Significance of Food Deserts

BY Dante Chinni  June 29, 2011 at 3:02 PM EST

In a recent post, we examined the prevalence of food deserts, places with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In 2006, 2.4 million households were located in food deserts, defined for households as being more than a mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle. We showed that the food desert problem varied significantly depending on where you live.

For example, while only 1.5 percent of households in wealthy, suburban Monied ‘Burbs were located in food deserts, a much higher 4.2 percent of those homes in Evangelical Epicenters were in a “desert.” And a full 5.9 percent of the homes in Minority Central counties did.

And these broader averages understate the extent of the problem in many specific places where the numbers are remarkably higher. In Tensas Parish, La., (a Minority Central community), for example, 17.6 percent of households with no care were more than a mile from a supermarket; in Wilcox County, Ala., (Minority Central) the figure was 18.6 percent; and in Holmes County, Ohio, (Evangelical Epicenter) a full 27.9 percent of households were in food desserts.

Look on the map below on those swaths of brown from West Virginia down through Louisiana. In those places, more than 5 percent of the households sit in a food desert.

Why It Matters

But what difference does living in a food desert make? Is it simply a matter of inconvenience? If food deserts only mean that people need to walk farther or rely on public transportation in order to buy healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, is that so bad? Do policy makers and public health advocates need to worry much about them?

In a word, yes.

Community TypePercentage Food DesertsPercentage ObesityPercentage Diabetes
Monied ‘Burbs1.524.48.2
Minority Central5.932.612.2
Evangelical Epicenters4.229.811.0
Tractor Country2.927.58.8
Campus and Careers2.325.58.4
Immigration Nation1.925.48.1
Industrial Metropolis1.125.39.0
Boom Towns2.127.28.7
Service Center3.628.79.8
Empty Nests2.727.79.5
Military Bastions2.827.99.7
Mormon Outposts1.525.26.8

Food deserts can be hazardous to your health. Living in a food desert matters a lot when it comes to a pair of serious public health issues: obesity and diabetes. As we’ve written before, these problems vary across communities, and the data show that they’re clearly related to the prevalence of food deserts.

Nationally, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, counties with the highest percentage of households living in food deserts (10 percent or more) had rates of adult obesity in 2008 that were a full nine percentage points higher than counties with the lowest percentage of households in food deserts (1 percent or fewer households).

Similarly, high-food desert counties had rates of adult diabetes that were five points higher than low-food desert places.

Surely, these differences reflect the particular characteristics of counties in which more people live in food deserts. Diabetes, for example, is related to poverty and unemployment, not simply to proximity to a supermarket. However, the relationship between food deserts and these health outcomes remains, even after we control for counties’ median household income, poverty rates, and the racial and ethnic make-up of the population.

Food deserts also contribute significantly to obesity among low-income preschool children. All of which is to say, living in a food desert is not incidental, it has an independent effect on obesity and diabetes. Food deserts matter for public health.

Why should this be the case? It has to do with how people living in food deserts fill in the gaps in their diet. Counties with high rates of food deserts also tend to have higher per capita expenditure at fast food restaurants. (Among full service restaurants, the pattern is reversed: there is more per-capita spending in places with fewer food deserts.) This suggests that people in food deserts may be substituting less nutritious fast food for the produce and other fresh food they have only limited access to.

There is also the question of what’s available. Healthy – and expensive – supermarket chains and specialty stores aren’t itching to get food desert communities that are generally poorer than average.

What about farmers’ markets? Might they provide alternative sources of nutritious fresh food to people living far from supermarkets? As it turns out, counties with more households living in food deserts have fewer farmers markets, not more. (We’ll have much more to say about farmers markets in a future post.)

Growing Problems

But beyond the costs and the habits, there are some more troubling aspects to these food desert locales.

When you combine the other data we have seen in Patchwork Nation with these food desert and public health numbers, there are signs of a growing socio-economic and cultural problem. The study of food deserts is still relatively new, but there seem to be two key factors that go into making a county prone for these deserts – lower levels of population density and lower levels of wealth.

There are a few Patchwork Nation types that match those factors fairly neatly: the Evangelical Epicenters, Service Worker Centers and Minority Central. As the chart illustrates, it is in these places – Evangelical Epicenters and Minority Central in particular – that have the highest levels of households in food deserts, obesity, and diabetes.

And those communities are not only not doing well economically now, they have been on a downward track for some time. They all have seen their incomes fall since 1980, as we noted earlier this year in a piece in the Atlantic Monthly.

There is, in other words, a structural problem for them economically and the food desert challenge raises those stakes.

The people living in those places are not only living in poorer places that are less healthy. They are actually getting less wealthy over time as well, which, in turn, may make it harder to turn the tide on the health trends.

And that, ultimately, is a testament to the challenge of the food deserts – they are both a symptom and cause of broader problems in these communities in particular.

The challenges in those places run deep and touch on many aspects of life. They may start at the punch-clock but they run through to the dinner table and eventually to the doctor’s office.

Dante Chinni, is the director of Patchwork Nation.
Paul Freedman is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and co-founder of the UVA Food Collaborative.