Urban Food Deserts: Not just a low-income consumer problem anymore

Anish Dasgupta
Published in
3 min readApr 30, 2021


Access to fresh food is, in itself, not a new problem. It’s simply a problem that’s accelerated and become more consequential due to the pandemic. Mobility restrictions, gaps in food delivery systems coupled with panic buying and hoarding has pushed up food prices and affected the availability of fresh vegetables — especially in urban areas.

While this is true everywhere, its impact in some urban pockets of developed nations like the USA are being overlooked and underestimated.

As far back as the mid 1990’s, the term Food Desert was coined to refer to areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. It’s not a term that necessarily refers to rural areas. The US Department of Agriculture defines urban food deserts as residential areas where people live more than 1 mile from a supermarket (and 10 miles in the case of rural food deserts). This doesn’t mean they lack an access to food; it refers specifically to the lack of fresh foods — like meats, fruits and veggies.

What is available are processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. Food Deserts typically have fast food restaurants and convenience stores selling cheaper processed foods and low-quality vegetables, but not food that would constitute a healthy diet. Basically, getting a soda is easier than getting an apple.

But ‘access to fresh’ isn’t just about availability; it’s more about affordability. In developed nations, ‘fresh’ produce is usually available only in supermarkets at prices that put it out of reach of the average daily wage-earner. This is also why supermarkets aren’t located in the poorer neighborhoods; it doesn’t make business sense to do so.

For decades residents of Food Deserts have been more prone to obesity-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes. But now, with the pandemic putting the spotlight on healthy diets with plenty of greens to boost immunity, this consumer faces far greater risks.

The problem with COVID-19 is that the vaccinations don’t make one immune to the disease indefinitely, they simply boost the body’s immunity to fight it more effectively. What it comes down to, is building and keeping up immunity levels — and fresh food is the most basic way to do that. So, access to fresh food is no longer just a ‘good-to-have’, it’s a ‘must-have’.

And how big a problem is it? I couldn’t find any global number, but a 2017 report mentions that in America alone there are over 23 million people living in Food Deserts. And most of what’s being done to resolve these are small-scale citizen efforts to open stores that sell fresh. But its nowhere near solving the problem.

To truly get past the pandemic, we need to be sure that absolutely everyone has the immunity developed to battle COVID-19. Because, as we have seen, if even one person has it, no one is safe.

So, Food Deserts are no longer just a low-income consumer issue in developed nations — they are key battlegrounds in the fight against COVID-19.