Food deserts are areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food, usually due to the absence of grocery stores within a convenient distance. While food deserts exist in both urban and rural communities, their definitions differ due to the different characteristics of each community. A rural food desert is defined as an area where residents must drive more than 10 miles to the closest grocery store or supermarket. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, approximately 25% of Americans living in food deserts are located in rural areas. To find out if you live in a food desert, check out the USDA food desert map locator here.
Food deserts exist in rural areas for several reasons. One of the largest contributing factors is lack of reliable transportation. Driving more than 10 miles may not seem far to those who own vehicles, but for those without a car, getting to a grocery store can be a daunting task. If you live in a rural area, public transportation is likely lacking. That leaves the option of getting a ride from a friend, which can often be difficult, or finding other modes of transportation, such as a taxi. However, assuming taxis are even an option in certain rural areas, this mode of transportation can be expensive. If a grocery store is 10 miles away, assuming an average initial charge of $2.50 and per mile charge of $2, transportation costs alone would cost approximately $45 round trip. When finding transportation to a grocery store becomes prohibitively difficult and expensive, the only option left may be to shop at the local convenience store where fruits and vegetables are likely to be in short supply.
Low population density is also a contributing factor in rural areas. With low populations, supermarkets or grocery chains are less likely to exist. For example, rural counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi average only one supermarket per 153.5 square miles. If a rural area is lucky enough to have a supermarket, because populations in rural areas are declining, these markets may close down or relocate to more populous places. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, one in five grocery stores has gone out of business in the last four years in rural areas. For more statistics on grocery store loss in rural areas, see this post. With supermarkets being nonexistent or closing, the prospect of gaining access to healthy food is grim.
The expense of fruits and vegetables and the inconvenience of cooking is another contributing factor to food deserts in rural areas. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive than unhealthy ones. For example, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the United States increased by nearly 75% between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26% during the same period. Additionally, the cooking fresh meals can be time consuming, while picking up a fast food meal, a microwave meal, or even a bag of chips and soda is quick and filling due to high fat content. With unhealthful food being cheaper and more convenient than healthy options, people are less likely to purchase these healthy alternatives. Consequently, convenience stores are less likely to carry fruit and vegetables if customers rarely purchase them.
If people in rural areas still have access to food in convenience stores, why should we care that so many rural communities are now considered food deserts? The answer is because food deserts are correlated with high rates of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. This also has a major impact on America’s wallet; according to a nationwide study in 2012, the cost of diagnosed diabetes is approximately $176 billion each year in medical expenses alone.