Article: Food Deserts

Food Deserts

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About Food Deserts in Our Community

Overview of Issue Impacts

A food desert is an urban or rural area that lacks access to affordable, healthy, fresh food, such as affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that constitute a healthy diet (1). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “food deserts are census tracts characterized by a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income and with at least 33 percent of the population living more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of rural census tracts)”(2). Communities without adequate access to healthy foods are disproportionately impacted by obesity and diet-related diseases such as Type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, as a result of poor diets (3). Therefore, improved geographic access can reverse the trends of increasing rates of diet-related diseases, which is  particularly necessary in extremely rural and urban areas, where the majority of food deserts are located (1)

Nationally, 25 to 30 million Americans live in food deserts (3). Despite the fact that North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for the number of year-round farmers’ markets, there are at least 349 food deserts across 80 counties, impacting over 1.5 million of North Carolina residents (4). In fact, the issue in North Carolina is quite widespread as about one in every five residents is “food insecure” (5)

One of the most noteworthy measures North Carolina has taken to improve access to healthy food was creating the Healthy Food Small Retailer Program (HRSRP) in 2016, as administered by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (6). The HRSRP program reimburses small retailers for equipment that is essential to stock healthy food, including refrigerators, shelves and freezers (6). Aside from HRSRP, there have also been community-transformation grants that have helped increase the number of mobile farmers’ markets and farm stands, encouraging participation in community-supported agriculture and enhancing farmers’ market access (4)

Populations Affected by Issue

The issue of food deserts is widespread in the US, as 25-30 million Americans live in food deserts (3). Southern states like Alabama, Louisiana, and North Carolina are most affected due to poverty, health and food access (3). Low-income residents are particularly burdened by food deserts and may be forced to decrease their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables because of the added cost of travelling to and from the store, in favor of shopping at a local convenience store (1).

Fast Facts


  1. Opening doors to healthy food in North Carolina, The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, Harvard Law School
  2. Mapping Food Deserts in the United States, United States Department of Agriculture (2011) 
  3. Food Desert Infographic, American Heart Association
  4. Food Deserts and Farmers Markets, North Carolina Health News 
  5. Hunger and Poverty in NC, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle 
  6. Healthy Food Small Retailer Project, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (2019)
  7. The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (2018)

Additional Resources

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Page Contributors

Thank you to the following contributors:

  • Summer 2020:
    • Despina C.

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Last updated April 2021

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