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
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.