What Are Food Deserts and What Is Their Impact on Health?

You may have heard about food deserts. This is a problem that affects some populations. Take a look at its consequences and how to address it.
What Are Food Deserts and What Is Their Impact on Health?
Maria Patricia Pinero Corredor

Written and verified by the nutritionist Maria Patricia Pinero Corredor.

Last update: 18 July, 2022

Access to food is an issue of increasing priority on the political agenda in many countries. Likewise, how food procurement affects people’s health is of concern from the perspective of social and health governance. These priorities have been addressed since the 1990s, when the concept of food deserts appeared.

Food deserts are geographic areas where the population doesn’t have access to healthy food. In these areas, families can’t buy fresh and nutritious food, but rather highly processed products with empty calories that affect their state of health.

If you want to learn more about food deserts and how they affect the body, keep reading this article. You’ll see how a social problem of the past is still here in the present.

What are food deserts and what is their history?

Since the 1990s, problems arising from food availability have become a concern for academics and governments around the world. The United Kingdom found that there were food shortages for certain disadvantaged people in major British cities.

The most dramatic aspect here was to observe that this situation of social exclusion conditioned the residents’ diet. Everything depended on the financial situation of the person and the neighborhoods, and this indirectly affected their health.

How are these areas defined?

The term has been used by academics, policymakers, and community groups to describe populated urban areas where residents don’t have access to an affordable and healthy diet. Government reports have stated that food deserts can harm public health by restricting the availability and affordability of health-promoting foods.

As part of implemented policy, adequate food supplies for people with low incomes or living in poor neighborhoods are encouraged.

As stated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 13 million people in the United States live in these geographic areas. Of course, this also represents an environmental health problem that can affect the lives of families for generations.

There’s a high probability that a food desert will appear in an area of low purchasing value. In these regions, fast food restaurant chains, cheap meat, foods rich in fat, sugar and salt, as well as ultra-processed foods abound.

It has been proven that the consumption of these products can cause chronic diseases associated with poor nutrition, such as the following:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Anemia
Fast food.
Fast food outlets abound in areas that are food deserts, impoverishing the supply of quality food.

Characteristics of food deserts

The USDA established some characteristics that help define whether an area can be considered a food desert. Above all, poverty is considered, which must be at least 20% of the population, which would prevent the acquisition of high-quality healthy food.

Another factor is related to the distance present between 33% of the population and the nearest grocery store. For a rural area to be declared a food desert, it must be more than 10 miles away; in urban areas, more than 1 mile.

Access to a vehicle or public transportation for transportation to supermarkets also counts. In this regard, the USDA reports that more than 2 million households in the United States don’t have a vehicle.

Although it may seem contradictory, 82% of food deserts are located in urban areas. This is especially the case in cities where living costs are so high that traders tend to look for other places to invest.

Another interesting article for you: What Are Fast Food Hamburgers Really Made Of?

Impact of food deserts on health

Just as in a desert, the limited availability of fresh and healthy food can have a significant impact on human health. Let’s look at the consequences.

Excess weight and obesity

Obesity is the biggest health problem related to the presence of food deserts. This is because poor access to healthy foods favors the consumption of processed, sugary, and refined foods. They’re cheaper, but increase calories and fat deposits in the long term.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2016 that 39% of adults would be overweight and 13% were obese. In addition, both conditions increase the risk of non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart problems, strokes, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome, among others.

It can even be a risk factor for developing cancer.

Likewise, from a public health point of view, obesity can be generational, as the children of obese people are more likely to become obese in the future.

It can affect children’s growth and development

Poor eating habits affect not only the good nutrition of adults, but also that of growing children. Certain nutrients are key to good brain development during early childhood. Iron, vitamin A, and iodine are key to cognitive health and the immune system.

Moreover, the influence of good nutrient intake on infant development begins in the womb. For example, folic acid deficiency in the early stages of pregnancy can lead to congenital anomalies.

A child eating pizza.
Malnutrition in children leads to impaired growth and cognitive development.

Increases the risk of food allergies

Food deserts pose a risk for people suffering from food allergies. More than 15 million Americans suffer from them and many of them are life-threatening.

Colorings, flavorings, nitrites, sulfites, or any other additives in ultra-processed foods are allergens. These types of products predominate in food desert stores.

Fresh and healthy foods available in large supermarket chains are safer for consumption and put people suffering from this disorder at less risk.

On the other hand, dietary restrictions in food deserts, such as lactose intolerance or gluten allergy, don’t have a variety of products that allow substitution. If any substitutes exist, their costs can be as much as 37% higher than in a regular supermarket.

How to address the problem of food deserts?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a few methods to address and prevent food deserts:

  • Establish local farmers’ markets.
  • Build community gardens.
  • Invest in and improve public transportation to enable movement from food deserts to the healthy market chain.
  • Improve local laws to attract large and small supermarket and health food investors to deserts.

Despite these measures, there are ingrained shopping habits, customs, and budget adjustments within families that also need to be considered. This is why other measures, such as education and nutritional guidance, are required in addition to those established.

The traditions and family cultures of each community must also be respected. Addressing food deserts is, therefore, an arduous task that requires the commitment of all stakeholders.

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