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What is a Food Desert?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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A food desert is a region where citizens have little or no access to fresh, healthy foods, and the community has a large number of fast food establishments. Food deserts are commonly found in urban areas, where grocers and other providers have withdrawn to the suburbs, leaving citizens stranded and relying heavily on expensive corner stores with limited and heavily processed stock. Food deserts can also be found in isolated rural areas, where people without cars may struggle to survive when regional shops close or cut back on their stock.

Several factors come into play in a food desert. In urban areas all over the world, stores are withdrawing to the suburbs, leaving urban populations stranded. People generally cannot afford to leave low-income neighborhoods in urban areas, and many people in these neighborhoods lack cars, relying heavily on public transport. When grocery stores leave, these individuals may not be able to access the stores in their new locations, and instead they turn to corner stores, which often carry limited food items, and no fresh fruit or vegetables.

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Access is a major issue in food deserts. In many cases, public transit does not reach the areas where stores relocate, because they are in comparatively wealthier neighborhoods where people use cars to get around. Urban blight can cause a food desert to become more dangerous or unpleasant, making it hard to get to stores in the neighborhood, especially when they are located in inconvenient or dangerous areas. For people who have busy working schedules, it can be difficult to hit stores when they are open, and people with disabilities may not be able to reach or navigate stores to buy food.

Financial access is also an issue in a food desert. The goods at corner stores tend to be very expensive, in addition to being unhealthy, because store owners know that their clients have no shopping options. In the event that a more full-service grocery store does open, people may not be able to afford the products on offer, and likewise with farmers' markets, which tend to be more expensive than grocery stores.

People in a food desert also struggle with what to do with the food they can access. People in some communities have psychological barriers to eating certain foods, because they are unfamiliar, and they may not know how to prepare the foods they can obtain. Faced with an unfamiliar vegetable or a fast food restaurant, people may choose the fast food because it is familiar, cheap, and easy.

The existence of food deserts has been recognized since the 1970s, when researchers in Britain first began looking at rural communities experiencing economic downturns. In the 1990s, the issue became more publicized globally, and some organizations have made an effort to combat food deserts with things like community gardens, cooking classes, low-cost farmers' markets, and campaigns to lobby for grocers with affordable fresh foods in depressed neighborhoods.

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