After all, aisles in my grocery store are overflowing with healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.

So, do I really live in a nutritional wasteland? Apparently, I do. Here's why, along with some ideas about how to help solve the problem.

What is a food desert?

I don't think twice when I order grocery delivery from my favorite supermarket. I know I'll have a large selection of fresh produce. It's just a matter of deciding what I want and adding those items to my virtual shopping cart. Simple as that. But not for everyone.

Food deserts are officially defined as geographic locations where residents have limited or no access to affordable healthy food options, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. This is most often due to the absence of a grocery store within a convenient traveling distance and/or not having transportation. You can't shop if you can't get there.

convenience store front

Economic and social causes

The other defining characteristic of food deserts is a combination of socioeconomic factors. They are most often located in low-income areas where owning a car is rare. Not surprisingly, studies found that communities with higher incomes have three times as many supermarkets as low-income neighborhoods, where grocery stores are usually smaller and offer fewer selections.

Gone are the days when greengrocers owned neighborhood shops that sold primarily produce. People’s food choices are strictly limited by the affordable options near them.

girl in a junk food aisle

Many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains offering inexpensive dairy and meat products loaded with sugar, salt, and fat. Mass-produced foods such as chips, sodas, and packaged snack cakes available in gas stations, delis, and liquor stores are no better.

person begging

The majority of food deserts, especially in urban areas, are not located in places that appeal to supermarket chains and specialty stores. As a result, food choices are limited to processed foods and commercial fast food.

If fresh fruit is hard to find, try a sun-dried, grown in the USA fruit medley.

The effects

Children growing up in these areas have diets that are high in sugar and fat but lack variety. As a result, obesity and diabetes are on the rise there. The obesity rate for children is more than double that of affluent areas.

Food deserts primarily impact the elderly, poor, disabled, and people without access to a car.

girl eating junk food

Food deserts are everywhere

They're not just found in poorer neighborhoods, and there are numerous reasons why an area is a food desert. Inner cities lack employment opportunities or have lower wages. Besides urban areas, it can be especially problematic finding fresh, healthy produce in remote locations.

A grocery store is absolutely essential

Supermarkets are stocked with a variety of fresh and minimally processed foods. It's more likely that a person will choose a healthy meal when these items are nearby and affordable.

However, the headline of a recent study reported that fewer than 28% of Americans say they have easy access to healthy foods.

vegetable bins in grocery store

(vegetable counter of a larger supermarket; public domain photo)

Supermarkets themselves are also responsible for part of the problem. What used to be considered basic foods, such as sourdough and rye bread, are now labeled as artisan and as a result have become much more expensive. People with less money are forced to buy cheaper food. If you don’t have a lot of money and can buy a large package of junk food for the same price as a piece or two of fruit, it's a no-brainer.

When fast food restaurants or small shops are the only close options, the result is often meals that lack nutritional value. The absence of a local supermarket is a primary cause of a food desert.

One option: a community or neighborhood garden

community garden

(Linda from Chicago, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In some locations, a neighborhood garden can be a way to obtain healthy food. These gardens provide fresh produce for areas where it’s needed most while involving the community in the process. Children learn about growing vegetables and are curious to taste them.

This option will require time and commitment. Some areas have community gardens at or adjacent to schools since these are places where people already congregate. Students can reap the rewards of fresh food and at the same time learn from working in the garden.

Start a community food forest in your town, where a community can gather fruits, vegetables, nuts and tubers from trees and perennial plants.

Grow your own

peppers growing in a pot

(above photo is mine)

lettuce growing in containers

Don't be deterred if you don't have the time, equipment, or a lot of room to grow your own veggies. Anything that is clean and drains well can hold a plant. A coffee can or plastic milk jug works well for greens, herbs, and small tomatoes. Click here for more ideas.

tomatoes growing on a windowsill

(;;; USDA)

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