What grocery stores look like in food deserts, where people live in 'nutritional wastelands'

Nati Harnik/AP and Hayley Peterson/Business InsiderA closed supermarket in Nebraska (left) and the “fresh foods” aisle of a Dollar General store (right). Many Americans live in “food deserts” where they don’t have easy access to fresh, nutritious foods.

Food deserts, or low-income areas that lack easy access to grocery stores, are rampant across the US.

At least 23.5 million Americans live in these food deserts, where grocery stores are located more than a mile away, according to the USDA. That means the people who live in these areas often don’t have easy access to fresh produce and rely on processed and pre-packaged food to get by. Many people who have dietary restrictions may not be able to get easy access to food they can eat.

You can see a visual representation on the Food Desert Locator Map, which was last updated in 2017, but we also rounded up some photos of what it’s actually like to live in a food desert, as well as the lengths people have to go to get access to healthy foods.


In the US, “food deserts” are low-income areas where access to a grocery store is more than a mile away.

USDAThe USDA’s tool for finding ‘food deserts,’ otherwise known as communities without easy access to grocery stores.

Described as “nutritional wastelands” by the USDA, food deserts occur in both cities and rural communities and take a toll on the populations’ health.

The USDA has a helpful map (last updated in 2017) that helps define and locate these communities.


Food deserts can be devastating to local communities. Here in 2016, the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart in Alabama is completely full as people rush to get their groceries before the entire store shuts down.


This Hy-Vee grocery store in Nebraska was closed in 2015. It was located in the neighbourhood of Lincoln, which is now considered a “food desert.”

Source: Lincoln Journal Star


Here, a former Albertsons grocery store sits empty in Bellingham, Washington. The grocery store closed in 2016, leaving many without jobs and even more without access to nutritious foods.

Flickr/Robert AshworthLocal graffiti bemoans the closed grocery store in Bellingham, Washington.

According to reporting from the Bellingham Herald, a non-compete clause meant another grocery store was not able to go into the over 40,000-square-foot space for an undisclosed amount of time.


Communities in food deserts may have access to some types of foods that are high in calories or low in nutrients. Sometimes, they are referred to as “food swamps” because of the availability of cheap fast food.

Warren Skalski for the Washington Post/Getty ImagesA local grocery store in Englewood, Chicago, in 2014.

Pictured is a local corner store in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood, which was considered a food desert before a partnership with Whole Foods began in 2014. There’s now an Aldi supermarket competing in the area, too.


It’s not just rural areas — cities are affected by food shortages, too. Here, a local grocery store in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood in 2014 advertised cereal, cigarettes, soda, and chips. Before Whole Foods opened in 2016, the neighbourhood was considered a food desert.

Warren Skalski for the Washington Post/Getty ImagesMoon Star Grocery in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood in 2014.

Source: MarketWatch


Another example of a local grocery store in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood in 2014. Many of the foods and beverages advertised in the window were low in nutrients and/or high in calories.

Warren Skalski for the Washington Post/Getty ImagesA corner store at 69th Street and Halsted in Englewood, Chicago, in 2014.

Many Americans are also turning to dollar stores to grocery shop and feed their families.

In 2018, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s (ILSR) released a report that raised concerns about competitors Dollar General and Dollar Tree targeting rural communities and low-income neighbourhoods that already lacked access to healthy food.

One of the biggest concerns outlined in the report is that stores like Dollar General and its competitor, Dollar Tree, are targeting rural communities and low-income black neighbourhoods, many of which already lack access to healthy food.


When Business Insider reporters toured Dollar Tree and Dollar General stores in 2018, they did not find a lot of healthy options.

Business Insider/Hayley PetersonDollar General’s ‘fresh food’ section in one of its stores.

While both stores say they offer healthy options, with Dollar General recently adding 125 “better for you” items to 2,700 locations, Business Insider reporters Mary Hanbury and Hayley Peterson did not find fresh fruits or vegetables, though both reporters did find basics like milk and eggs.


Communities are speaking up about the lack of healthy food availability, especially in low-income neighbourhoods where not everyone has access to a vehicle and fresh food is hard to come by.

Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesFood activists and locals marching two miles from the nearest major grocery store to the United Black Fund offices in 2017.

Holding signs that said “healthy food is a basic human right,” food activists, locals, and politicians all marched two miles in Washington, DC, from the only major grocery store in the area to the United Black Fund offices in 2017.

The Ward 8 neighbourhood has only one grocery store for over 78,000 residents as of 2017.


There is some hope. Philadelphia has experimented with something known as the “Fresh Corner” initiative, in which independent corner stores located in food deserts were encouraged to sell healthier foods.

As of 2017, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative reported that 700 stores were actively participating in the program. Of these stores, the majority of them were smaller businesses with fewer than three aisles, and they were mostly located in the tri-state area after the program extended to New Jersey and New York.


There are also programs like the Veggie Mobile in Albany, New York, that helps shuttle nutritious vegetables and goods from farmers to underserved areas.

The service – created by the nonprofit Capital Roots – is still in business today after more than a decade.


Some people are also cautiously optimistic that Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 could kill food deserts in America … for good.

Kristi Blokhin/ShutterstockWhole Foods was acquired by Amazon.

Amazon bought the organic, artisanal grocer Whole Foods for $US13.7 billion in 2017. Some people were quick to point out that with Amazon’s delivery services and Whole Foods’ quality food, the acquisition could potentially help serve areas where nutritious food isn’t easy to access by delivering directly to consumers.

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