Food deserts admist Covid-19

Anthropology: Sociocultural Factors Influencing the Occurrence of Food Deserts

Food is one of the most important things that people need in order to survive and thrive. However, even though food is so vital to human existence, it is not a guaranteed human right. In fact, an estimated 8.9% of the world population suffers from hunger every day, and this number only continues to grow in some areas. Though there is a Sustainable Development Goal to end world hunger by 2030, the world as a whole is hugely off-track from reaching that goal in time, or even in the decades after it. But what happens when the lack of food is not what is causing people to go hunger, but rather the access to only poor-quality food? One growing problem across the globe are food deserts.

What is a food desert?

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a food desert is an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good quality fresh food. While the Oxford gives a definition that covers the basic outline of the issue, food deserts are so much more complex than that would imply. Food deserts are usually caused by complex socio-economic issues that run deep in the histories of effected communities and continue to cause issues in them. Food desert definitions are also influenced by geographic locations. In rural regions, one can be considered to live in a food desert if one lives more than ten miles away from a supermarket or source of varied, quality foods, and in urban areas this parameter is lessened to one mile. People living in food deserts lack access to food in general, but especially lack access to fresh and healthy foods. As of 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that over 23.5 million people living in the US were living in food deserts, with numbers on the rise.

cartoon depicting a literal food desert
A cartoon depicting a food desert. (Image via The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore)

Rural food deserts

When people think of rural areas, often what comes to mind are farmlands, fruit orchards, and access to fresh foods. While this is certainly true for some rural regions, in many others, it is not. In fact, almost twenty percent of rural regions in the United States are classified as food deserts. These food deserts most often occur in the midwestern states. People in these areas live far away from good sources of healthy food, like supermarkets or food specialty stores. Populations tend to be more elderly in make up, and thus may be less able to travel longer distances for adequate nutritional resources. Rural food desert communities may also have poorer health in general than urban food deserts due to a lack of rural healthcare delivery and distance to medical resources like hospitals, general practitioners, and even pharmacies.

a woman walks in front of an old grocery store
The Main Street Market of rural Bangor, PA, shortly before closing permanently. (photo by April Gamiz via The Morning Call)

Urban food deserts

Though it is hard for some people to believe that urban areas could even be considered food deserts, urban areas can gain this status when there is extremely limited access to nutritional foods, even in a heavily populated area. While rural food deserts have seemed to be decreasing over the past decade or so, urban food deserts are increasing with the overdevelopment of land and the increasing reliance on jobs in urban settings. The economic divide between rich and poor in urban areas is massive: while the wealthy can afford to travel to get groceries or have them delivered to their residences, poor people are often not able to do the same, and have little access to a wide variety of nutritious foods. Reducing it to its most basic frame: if all you can afford is McDonald’s, then all you are going to be able to eat is McDonald’s. When areas have limited food resources, citizens relying on those resources often also have to turn to unhealthy foods as an alternative to starvation. As a result, rates of obesity in urban food desert communities are high, but so are rates of malnutrition.

Green sign on dirt lot saying "Urban greens"
Urban Greens, an initiative to end food insecurity in the city of Providence, Rhode Island (photo by Johanna Detz via ecoRI news)

Factors influencing food deserts


Though not usually an exceptionally major factor in creating or prolonging food deserts, crime rates still play a role in these issues. Unfortunately, due primarily to the same set of social and economic factors that can cause food deserts in general (poverty, systemic racism, etc.), food desert areas are often disproportionately affected by crime, which works in a negative cycle with food access. There are two main contributions to food deserts from crime, both relating to access. For one, when areas have high levels of crime, businesses are less likely to open there, and if they do, are less likely to remain open. When it is too dangerous or insecure for a grocery store to open or stay open, citizens have less access to food. Similarly, when it is too dangerous to travel to any available food sources, people will avoid those areas. However, when areas have less access to food and are more financially unstable, crime tends to rise. In this way, crime and food deserts create a vicious cycle that deeply impact the ways these communities function.

chart interrelating crime and hunger
Chart showing the close relationship between incarceration and food insecurity (via Bread for the World)

Climate change

Another reason the issue of food deserts is growing is because food deserts are directly related to changes in climate. As the climate has been changing, rates of food production (including farming for produce, raising livestock, and commercial fishing, etc.) have greatly reduced. The scarcer the product in demand, the more expensive it becomes, and this applies to the food we eat, too. Climate change also affects the variety of foods that people are able to access, which can contribute to malnutrition in food desert communities, and can also negatively influence industry and the economies of these areas, further limiting people’s abilities financially to access food resources. Heightening food prices due to climate change affecting the production of food are causing the creation of new food deserts around the world in a relatively quick way. Though climate change has very obvious immediate impacts, the creation of food deserts is a more often overlooked impact, but is nonetheless very important to acknowledge and monitor.

atlas graph showing climate change effecting food yield
Graph showing climate change’s impact on global food production (image via Climate Change and Food Security)

Physical access

Obviously, one of the most prominent barriers to access to food for people in food deserts is when there is a physical disability in accessing these resources. As mentioned earlier, in more rural food deserts, people often must travel inconvenient distances in order to have proper access to supermarkets or other food sellers. While traveling for food or having food delivered to one’s home is not a great barrier for some, food deserts primarily come about in areas of poverty, low income, or in places with large populations of elderly people. People in these demographics are most often less able to travel for food or have food brought to them, which factors into the creation and continuation of food deserts.

Though it seems paradoxical, some food deserts do, in fact, have physically accessible food and nutritional resources. However, the populations in these areas may still qualify as being in food deserts for a couple of reasons. For one, the food in these resources may be of overall low quality. Resources that mainly offer pre-cooked foods, fast foods, or “junk” foods may be frequently utilized, but do not satisfy the nutritional needs of the community, which in turn qualifies the community as a food desert. Similarly, even if healthy food options are created or instituted in pre-existing food desert communities, they may not be utilized for cost or, when cost is not a factor, for lack of knowledge on nutrition. People tend to eat the foods that they were raised eating. If a generation of children grew up in a community that was in a food desert, and then healthier resources were created for them to access in adulthood, they may not know how to utilize it, and may raise their own children nutritionally in much the same way they were. In this way, the cycles of poverty and food deserts in communities are very closely linked.

cartoon of man walking 15 km to grocery store
Cartoon depiction of the distance people may need to travel to access groceries (Image via Chapman University)

Social Implications


Unfortunately, families with children are disproportionately affected by food deserts, mostly due to financial reasons. Parents, especially single parents, may not be able to support their children if they are not able to work standard hours. Late shift workers may also not have access to grocery stores in normal hours. As well as this, while there are welfare programs put in place to assist families in buying food, if people are unable to work the qualifying time, then they might not be able to access these benefits. However, even when such benefits are accessible, the funding might be too limited for beneficiaries to purchase nutritious foods for their families. Families with children may also be less able to travel for food, especially if they have young or multiple children to look after, and working families may not have time to prepare nutritious or frequent meals for their children.

a boy e
A child participating in a summer lunch program in California designed to alleviate hunger in children (photo by Jessica Cejnar via Del Norte Triplicate)

Sociocultural issues

One interesting fact about food resources is that there is an inverse relationship between food resources and alcohol resources, meaning that in places with fewer grocery stores or restaurants, there are significantly more liquor stores and vice versa. Some communities have as many as ten times more liquor stores than supermarkets available to their citizens. When alcohol is readily available in communities where there are already high incidences of poverty-related stress, rates of alcoholism soar. Malnutrition coupled with alcoholism also increases rates of non-communicable diseases, like cancers, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. These conditions also tend to disproportionately affect communities of color, who are largely affected by food deserts.

Communities of color are more likely to face food insecurity than are communities that are predominantly white. While only around ten percent of white Americans are food insecure, around a quarter of all Latino and Black Americans are food insecure. Because communities of color are so heavily affected by food deserts, some anthropologists have come to refer to the issue as “food apartheid”. When people of color are already marginalized by systemic racism in the places that they live, they are also likely to be forced into communities that have food deserts. Existing in food deserts contributes to cycles of poverty and disadvantage that people of color already face.

Graph charting racial disparities and food insecurity
Chart showing relationship between racial and ethnic disparities and food insecurity. (image via The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Anthropological significance

As the prevalence of food deserts has been increasing steadily over the course of the past couple years, they have become a more studied phenomenon by anthropologists. Anthropologists that specialize in medical anthropology and sociocultural anthropology are especially interested in examining how living in food deserts effects individual community members and affected communities as a whole. One reason for this is because food is so vital to nearly every aspect of human existence, which is the essence of what anthropology as a discipline aims to study. Food supports life, yes, but also connects people to each other and to their communities. When a community lacks access to food resources, their lives down to the individual level are impacted negatively.

As previously discussed, food deserts are a facet of the cycles of poverty in urban and rural areas that run rampant around the world. Poverty prolongs issues of health, education, and even the ways people interact with each other and how they survive. By studying these cycles, and the forces (like food deserts) that influence them, anthropologists are better able to understand how people function in such environments, which in turn enables organizations to make conscious and impactful changes to halt generational poverty from harming future generations. Because food deserts are on the rise, they make for a perfect opportunity for the anthropological community to study these issues.

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