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What is a Food Desert?

The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center is housed within the School of Medicine and is dedicated to empowering rural communities to improve access and effectiveness of health care. The Center accomplishes this mission by offering research, collaboration, and training opportunities. Mercer University School of Medicine’s Summer Student Research Scholars program matches students with faculty throughout the medical school network to engage in multiple projects and professional development experiences. This summer, the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center teamed up to promote the research on the effects of food deserts on nutrition in Georgia. With strong evidence that food deserts are correlated with a high prevalence of overweight, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death, this research strives to uncover potential health disparities with the state of Georgia, and therefore directly correlates with the Center’s mission.

So, what is a food desert?

A Food Desert is a region where the people who live there have limited access to healthy and affordable food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Many factors contribute to the presence of food deserts today, such as the traveling distance necessary to find healthy food options, having a low income, or a lack of transportation.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 30% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.

Differentiating from urban and rural areas can be challenging at times, due to organizations and researchers have many different definitions of what these two classifications are. The Census Bureau uses the “land-use concept” that identifies urban areas based on how densely settled the area is. Whereas, USDA rural development programs use the “administrative concept” that uses jurisdictional boundaries, such as city and county lines. Although these vague and variable definitions can lead to unnecessary confusion, it does highlight the reality that rural and urban classifications are multidimensional concepts.

Regarding the USDA’s definitions of urban and rural areas, there are different criteria used to identify a “food desert” in urban areas than in rural areas. In urban areas, a food desert is an area where at least 500 people or 33% of the population must live more than 1 mile from the nearest large grocery store. Whereas in rural areas, at least 500 people or 33% of the people must live more than 10 miles from the nearest large grocery store.

On April 20th, the Kroger store on Pio Nono Avenue in Macon, Georgia, had its last day of operation and closed its doors to consumers for good. The closing of this grocery has created a food desert directly in the center of the city of Macon. Yes, there are still grocery stores open in Macon. However, with a lack of adequate public transportation, for many people in this area, the only alternative for grocery shopping is convenience stores. This creates both a financial strain, as convenience store prices are typically higher than what a consumer would pay at a traditional grocery store, as well as product limitations since grocery stores tend to offer a broader range of products.

The closure of a grocery store in Macon, Georgia, is just one example of how food deserts are continuing to develop in today’s world. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, nearly 2 million Georgia residents, including about 500,000 children, currently live in a food desert. Almost 19% of the state’s population lives in areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. Therefore, food deserts may be having a tremendous impact on the health and quality of life of the people living within them.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020,  a healthy eating plan should include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Protein-rich foods, such as
    • seafood
    • eggs
    • lean meats
    • poultry
    • nuts
  • Calcium-rich foods, such as
    • fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Healthy oils

With people living in food deserts having limited access to grocery stores or other outlets to purchase healthy and cost-efficient foods, their ability to maintain the currently recommended dietary guidelines may also be negatively affected. Therefore, the lack of access to healthy food and difficulty maintaining a well-balanced, healthy diet may contribute to poor nutrition and negative health outcomes, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity.

MUSM first-year student Merritt Daniels wrote this article. Merritt is interested in working with rural communities to improve health through diet and nutrition.