Getting enough fruits and vegetables is key to good health. But more than 23 million Americans live in areas where they can’t get fresh food. Are you one of them? We’ll help you figure out if you live in a food desert, and share some expert tips on what you can do to access healthy food.
How to tell if you live in a food desert
In some communities, fast food restaurants are much easier to find than grocery stores. For lots of folks, it can be really tough to get fresh fruits and vegetables regularly.
These areas are food deserts, where 20% or more of people live in poverty and have little access to healthy, affordable food. In a city food desert, at least one-third of folks live a mile or more away from a grocery store. People in city food deserts may need to walk far or take multiple buses or trains to get to the market, which costs time and money.
Out in the country, people in food deserts live 10 or more miles away from a market. In those places, folks may need to drive upward of 30 miles to get to the store.
“Food deserts impact people differently,” says Kate Homonai, a Family & Consumer Sciences educator at the Ohio State University Extension. She helps run a program called Grow Your Health, which teaches people in Vinton County, Ohio, how to grow their own gardens, cook, and eat better. Vinton, a rural county 70 miles outside of Columbus, lost its only grocery store in 2013, leaving the 13,000 people who live there with less access to fresh food. Thanks to help from the government, a local business owner was finally able to open another store in 2017.
The impact of living in a food desert
Some research suggests that living in a food desert can negatively affect your health. A 2018 University of Texas study found an association between food insecurity and obesity among women.
A diet low in fruits, vegetables, and proteins can lead to physical and mental health problems. “Hypertension, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, fatigue, depression, and anxiety can be caused or [made worse] by poor diet,” says Turshá Hamilton, ND, a New Orleans-based naturopathic doctor and author of The Black Family Health-O-Pedia.
As with many other health disparities, Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to live in an area with few supermarkets.
Solutions to food deserts
“Food deserts are a [two-part] problem, particularly for the Black community,” says Hamilton. “What do people have access to, and what are they willing to purchase?”
In addition to adding supermarkets, other important changes need to happen to help people in the long term, says Daniel Block, a Chicago State University geography professor who has studied food deserts. “Access is the first step, but study after study shows that just adding more grocery stores doesn’t change people’s purchasing habits.”
Adding stores and community programs that teach people how to eat and cook healthily is a better approach, Block says.
Programs that work connect with people’s cultures, family history, and positive food memories. Some also put healthy ingredients in people’s hands. Homonai often provides folks with free ingredients to help them prepare healthy recipes.
To find a program like this in your area, reach out to your local county public health department, or visit the website for a land grant university near you to find out if they offer free classes. You can also talk to your neighbors about resources they use.
“There are many different ways that we can get involved in our own health,” Hamilton says. “When we start small, we won't necessarily see those big changes overnight. But they add up.”
Tips for getting nutritious food in a food desert
Buy produce with a long shelf life. When you’re able to go to a grocery store, stock up on produce that won’t spoil right away. Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, taro root, parsnips and butternut squash will last for several weeks if stored in the refrigerator.
Choose frozen produce. Studies show that frozen produce has the same nutritional quality as fresh produce. It’s often cheaper, too, and will last for months in your freezer. Swap canned fruits and veggies for frozen ones, as they have better flavor and fewer (or no) additives, Hamilton says. Since fresh greens can go bad quickly, buy frozen ones like spinach, collard greens, and broccoli. Bonus: Frozen produce is already cleaned and chopped, so using it can drastically speed up your prep work.
Load up on pantry staples. Items like brown rice, dried beans and lentils (which are cheaper than the canned kind), as well as plain oats, nuts, and seeds, are great for making healthy meals. These ingredients are available in corner stores as well as supermarkets. Yadira Garcia, a New York City food justice advocate and chef who teaches low-income youth about farming and cooking, counsels her students to follow one rule of thumb: ABS, Always Be Soaking. “I tell them to always have some dried black beans or red kidney beans soaking in a jar. That way, you’re ready to cook with them whenever you want.”
Make big-batch stews. If you have or can buy a slow cooker or multi-cooker (for example, an Instant Pot, which has many functions, including slow cooking, pressure cooking and sauteing), you’ll cut down your active cooking time and make ingredients stretch further. Garcia advises slow-cooking tougher, cheaper cuts of meat like chuck steak overnight with water or stock, lots of root vegetables, hearty greens like kale or collards, and herbs and spices for a delicious and healthy stew. (You can also do this in a deep pot on the stovetop; you’ll just need to be there to stir and pay attention so the stew doesn’t stick to the pot or boil over.) Make enough so you can freeze several servings in individual portions for later.
Preserve your food. Learning to preserve food can save you money and make fresh food like vegetables, fruits, and homemade sauces last longer. Homonai’s most popular class shows students safe techniques for pickling, canning, and jarring vegetables and curing meats. Some schools like Ohio State University and Texas A&M provide free online classes. The National Center for Home Food Preservation also provides step-by-step instructions for canning, pickling, drying, freezing, and curing food.
Seek out community gardens. Community and urban gardens are shared plots of land where you can grow your own fruits and vegetables, and even swap items with your neighbors. Community programs like the one Honomai runs will teach you what to plant and how to tend to your garden. To find out what’s available in your area, plug your ZIP code into the American Community Garden Association directory, or check with local public schools, universities, or parks departments, which often run gardening programs. Nextdoor is a neighborhood platform that may help you learn about new programs, too.
Make your own kitchen scrap garden. Replanting kitchen scraps can help you grow your own food, Hamilton says. For scallions, leeks, and fennel, cut off one inch of the bulb end with the root attached. Put the piece you cut off root-side down in a cup with about half an inch of water. Refresh the water every other day; soon you’ll start seeing new shoots. Instead of tossing the bottoms of celery, romaine lettuce, and bok choy, place them base-side down in a shallow bowl with ½ inch of water. Keep them near a window and you’ll see leaves start to grow. Then, when you see roots beginning, transfer them to soil-filled pots.
This works for potatoes, too. If you have taters that have started sprouting, you can cut them into chunks so each section has one or two eyes. Plant the chunks in a five-gallon planter or bucket of soil. Each eye has the potential to grow into a new potato — who knew!
Share your story. Get involved in community organizations that are working toward improving food access. This is how Vinton finally got its grocery store, Homonai says. “The director of our senior citizens center went to the state house with a banana. She held up the banana and said, ‘My program participants need potassium. They found it was a lot easier to take a pill, but the pill was more expensive than a banana and doesn’t have all the nutrition.’ This struck a chord, and we got funding to put in a new store.”
“Real people sharing their experiences with decision-makers makes a difference,” she says. Speak up and share yours.