Retail Concentration, "Food Deserts," and Food-Disadvantaged Communities

Year: 2003

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Blanchard, Troy C., and Thomas A. Lyson

Institution: Mississippi State University

Project Contact:
Troy Blanchard, Professor
Social Science Research Center
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, MS 39762
Phone: 662-325-7886


Food retailing in the United States has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. As large food retailers have entered smaller, rural markets, many local grocers have gone out of business, resulting in fewer local food retailers. A ""food desert"" is an area where residents have limited access to supermarkets and supercenter stores. The term originated in Europe to describe places with few food retailers. U.S. researchers have only recently begun to apply this concept to rural areas in the U.S.

This study used data on food retailers from the 1999 County Business Patterns data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census to develop a measure of U.S. food deserts. In addition, the study described the characteristics of food desert populations, and assessed the impact of food deserts on the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The authors used Geographical Information System (GIS) technology to identify census blocks in which residents must travel at least 10 miles to access a supermarket or supercenter food retailer, which they defined as low-access areas. A county is designated to be a food desert based on the proportion of its population that lives in low-access areas. The food desert measure was then linked to data from the 2000 Census of Population and Housing to characterize the population of food desert counties.

The study found that food desert counties contain more small grocery and convenience stores than non-food desert counties. Because these stores often sell lower quality groceries at higher prices than supermarkets, food desert residents must sometimes travel long distances to access the quality, low-price groceries available at a supermarket or supercenter. Additionally, food deserts are less likely to have fruit and vegetable markets such as farmers markets. A second key finding was that food desert counties contain a higher percentage of low-income persons, lower median income families, a less-educated population, and higher rates of unemployment.

The authors also used data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to estimate the effect of living in a food desert county on the dietary intake of Mississippi residents. They found that residents of food deserts are 23.4 percent less likely to consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables than residents of non-food deserts, after controlling for age, race, gender, and education. In addition, the positive effect of education on consumption of fruits and vegetables is weaker in food desert counties than in non-food desert counties.

The study documented the prevalence and severity of food deserts in U.S. nonmetropolitan areas. Individuals living in food deserts may pay higher prices for groceries, since the greater travel costs incurred to access a large food retailer may not offset the savings available at these stores. Some sources of healthy food, such as fruit and vegetable markets, are less available in food deserts. Thus, living in a food desert may have an impact on the dietary quality of vulnerable segments of the population, including low-income families and the disabled, who comprise a greater share of the population in food desert counties. For these persons in particular, it may be inconvenient to shop at a large food retailer because of travel costs and other constraints.

Study findings indicate that food deserts affect dietary intake. Residents of food deserts experience a greater risk of poor dietary intake. Recent research identifies links between fruit and vegetable consumption and major health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, some forms of cancer, and pregnancy complications. These links underscore the health risks and public health costs associated with poor nutrition.