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What Is A Food Desert And Does It Affect Plant-Based Eating?

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When approaching the challenges of eating a whole food, plant-based diet, we most often think about the price tag. However, another challenge that millions of  Americans face is living in a “food desert.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert is defined as areas which have limited or no access to fresh and affordable healthy food.

This lack of access can appear in many different ways, such as not having reliable transportation, stores in the area do not carry affordable healthy food options, or the locations of the stores are too far away.

Additionally, a food desert is also defined as at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population that resides more than one mile away from a supermarket or a large grocery store.

An example of a food desert in an urban city might appear in the types of foods offered in the area. For instance, there may be an abundance of food options, such as fast food restaurants or convenience stores. However, finding fresh produce and healthier food items pose a challenge for the community.

With all of the ways to define a food desert, one thing is clear: there is a  limited access to affordable, healthy food options. This is an issue that is very real and very concerning to a lot of Americans.

For some communities, it’s not a matter of not wanting to eat healthy, but that the access to the healthy foods is limited or non-existent.

Living in a food desert

A few years ago I briefly lived in a food desert after I graduated from college. I moved away from campus to a room that was more affordable. However, I hadn’t realized that I was moving further away from access to healthy foods.

Prior to living in this new home, I was walking distance to everything I needed, including a “big box” grocery store called Publix. My new home was swallowed by dirt roads, sidewalk-less paths, and run-down liquor stores.

Although I had picked up healthier eating habits in college, it was difficult to maintain that food rhythm. It was easier to cross the street to grab a dollar burger, than to take 2 buses and walk half a mile to the other side of town to grab fresh produce.

Do you live in a food desert?

To confirm if I was indeed in a food desert, I used the Department of Agriculture’s Food Desert Locator. All of the areas that are colored in green in the map are considered food deserts. If you want to check if you’re in a food desert, visit Go to the Atlas.

Although I heavily was reliant on convenience stores and fast food joints, there were some ways that helped with the occasional access to healthy food:

Carpooling

Limited to transportation? Ask a neighbor or a friend close by for a ride to the grocery store. Not only will this cut down your commute time, but this will allow you to purchase more food items that you may not had the chance to when transporting by bus, train, or by foot.

Purchase non-perishables

Healthy food does not have to take form in fresh produce with a fast expiry date. Consider canned, frozen, and dry food. Examples of these foods include dry lentils, canned beans, frozen mixed vegetables, frozen raspberries, brown rice, frozen spinach, and canned tomatoes.

Purchase foods that last longer

In addition to non-perishables, foods that can last a very long time if stored properly include potatoes, onions, and apples. For a food storage chart, check out University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Additionally, if you’re interested in learning how to read food labels to make the best choice for you and your family, check out this guide from heart.org.

Locate a community garden

To find out if you have a community garden near you that you can help cultivate and feed your family, check out American Community Gardening Association’s garden locator.

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If you currently live in a food desert, what do you do to gain greater access to healthy, fresh food?

If you have any tips or resources to share, we want to know! Join our community on Facebook, or comment below.

For additional resources, take a look at the farmer’s market near you or your local food bank.

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