Food Insecurity and Food Deserts: How are they Related?

Food for thought: Scott Haskell argues that regulatory changes to food pricing, taxation, education, and business incentives, are needed to address food deserts, swamps, and mirages.

Silhouette of plate, fork, and knife.

Scott Haskell teaches the online course “Animal Health, World Trade, and Food Safety” each fall semester, and "The Law of the Preventive Controls for Human Food Rule" each spring semester.

Food deserts vs. food swamps vs. food mirages and food insecurity are all important societal concepts that need addressing through community participation and changes in current food laws and regulations.

Civil society uses a number of terms to describe a population’s access to food. Food deserts are often described as specific geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthier food options (e.g., low use of processed foods, low sugar groceries/drinks, fresh fruits and vegetables) are generally restricted or even nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores/supermarkets/farmers markets within a convenient traveling distance to vulnerable communities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where people live more than 1 mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or ten miles away in rural areas. This often translates into families shopping at ‘mini-marts’ or gas stations for their routine groceries. These local businesses generally sell ‘junk’ food and have significantly higher prices for this food (which is rarely fresh). Food deserts have a disproportionate impact on urban Latino and African American communities, and rural Indigenous Peoples and Caucasian communities. Food insecurity is much more profound within these food deserts.

Food swamps on the other hand, are geographic regions that provide adequate personal and community access to relatively healthful and affordable food, as well as an overabundance of less healthful food and drink options (e.g., small fast-food and corner markets). Canadian and the UK urban areas more commonly may contain food swamps. However, rural areas still generally contain food deserts in Canada and the US. 

A food mirage describes a geographic area where individuals and communities live in close proximity to grocery stores/supermarkets offering a seemingly vast array of healthy food choices, but many individuals cannot afford these foods. Within these areas, individuals must travel increased distances to find more budget-friendly healthful foods.

Food insecurity within the context of developed nations generally refers to limited or insecure access to all food types due to increased financial constraints. Families and communities with lower incomes and or under/unemployment may not have adequate money to afford healthful foods.

However, bringing higher quality food sources into these communities requires more than just facilities placement and purchase options. Food consumption data shows that healthier eating and a healthier lifestyle are not necessarily an immediate benefit of eliminating food deserts. Low supply of healthy foods in a given community can lead to a reduced demand for healthy foods, as poor dietary habits are created over time within that environment. Lower demand for healthy food, however, means less incentive for suppliers of healthier options to move into that community. As this consumer behavior becomes normalized, it creates a circular problem, and requires policy changes and education to move the community beyond poor nutrition. Re-learning or re-developing long-term healthy eating habits among children, parents, and in schools, is needed for better nutrition to be normalized and accepted.

Besides improved education and access to healthier foods, product price changes (including subsidies) may need to occur at the store level to improve healthy food selection. These changes in pricing can help encourage healthier lifestyle choices including healthy food consumption changes on a personal and community basis. Increased taxes on sugary drinks can help reduce consumption, while at the same time the provision of healthier replacement options must occur. Modifying food stamp programs to make fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable may also help make significant changes to food purchasing

Health inequality is one of society’s most important current issues. Poor nutrition and subsequent obesity can put individuals at risk of serious, even fatal health disorders. Coronary heart disease and diabetes (the first and seventh leading cause of death in the US) are common conditions within food deserts. Long-term diet and consumption patterns are determinants of health outcomes.

Food for Thought 

Public awareness of the issues posed by food deserts needs highlighting, with a commitment by society to increasing access and selection of healthy food options to underserved populations. First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded the “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity, which included a goal of eradicating food deserts. “Food environment research typically dichotomizes food retail settings into healthy or unhealthy categories, without capturing within-store features such as the proportion of healthy versus unhealthy foods, pricing, promotion, and convenience. Within each type of food retail setting, there are opportunities to purchase healthy and less healthy food and beverage options. Grocery stores, for example, are labeled as healthy food retail in the literature even though a significant proportion of food and beverages available for sale are not considered to be healthy choices.” (Minaker, 2016)

Potential interventions, laws and regulation development may include: (Modified from:

Policies and Legislation

  • Zoning changes to allow farmers’ markets in areas known to be food deserts and swamps
  • Zoning changes to allow mobile healthy food vending
  • Create tax incentives to draw greengrocers or full-service grocery stores to food deserts
  • Educate local governments concerning the needs for equitable access to healthy food
  • Advocate public transportation improvements to enhance access to full-service grocery stores
  • Provide food literacy family education and resources to all members of food desert communities to help make healthier food purchasing choices in a retail setting
  • Advocate for changes in land use zoning to allow for community and school gardens
  • Change regulations and laws concerning healthy corner stores programs
  • Support minimum distance laws and regulations for fast-food outlets and convenience stores from schools and venues where children spend their time
  • Provide regulations and legal guidance to local government and community programs on the implementation of new zoning regulations or by-laws for minimum distances of fast-food and unhealthy food outlets from schools and playgrounds
  • Support the regulations for restaurant menu calorie labeling with required legislation

The range of food policies, regulations and legal initiatives directed towards the issue of food deserts have proven to be quite complex. The federal government has designed/proposed programs, regulations, and laws to the effect of food desert eradication. Examples include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act (HFAAA), introduced to Congress in 2017 and reintroduced in 2019. The proposed bipartisan HFAAA would essentially amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow tax credits and grants for much needed programs that would provide access to healthy food in food deserts. The HFAAA would benefit many low-income rural and urban food desert communities by providing incentives to food service providers such as grocers, retailers, restaurants, and nonprofits, who expand access to nutritious foods in underserved communities. (

State, local, and community grass-root efforts work to address food deserts while the federal government fails at bipartisan attempts at compromise.

It should be noted that future food desert studies and legislation should consider the basic characteristics of representative communities and households that influence food insecurity. The utilization of evidence-based studies may help facilitate public health and legal efforts to address food insecurity as a social determinant of overall health within food deserts.



Minaker LM (2016) Retail food environments in Canada: maximizing the im- pact of research, policy and practice. Can J Public Health. 2016;107(Suppl. 1):5724. Accessed January 28, 2021

Health Canada. Measuring the Food Environment in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada (2013). Accessed January 26, 2021

Kirkpatrick SI, Reedy J, Butler EN, Dodd KW, Subar AF, Thompson FE, et al. (2014) Dietary assessment in food environment research: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2014;46(1):94-102. Accessed January 30, 2021

Mah CL, Cook B, Rideout K, Minaker LM. (2016) Policy options for healthier re- tail food environments in city-regions. Can J Public Health. 2016;107(Sup- pl 1). Accessed January 28, 2021  

Luan H, Law J, Quick M. (2015) Identifying food deserts and swamps based on relative healthy food access: a spatio-temporal Bayesian approach. Int J Health Geog. 2015;14(1). Accessed January 28, 2021

Breyer B, Voss-Andreae A. (2013) Food mirages: geographic and econom- ic barriers to healthful food access in Portland, Oregon. Health Place. 24(131-139). Accessed January 18, 2021

Survey. J Gen Intern Med (2021) Jan 6. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06492-9. Accessed January 16, 2021.

USDA Economic Research Service (2017) Washington: USDA Economic Research Service; [updated 2017 Nov 27]. Definitions of Food Insecurity; Accessed January 16, 2021. 

Coleman-Jensen A, Rabbitt MP, Gregory CA, Singh A. (2019) Household Food Security in the United States in 2018. Accessed January 28, 2021  

Nord, M.; Coleman-Jensen, A.; Gregory, C. (2014) Prevalence of US Food Insecurity Is Related to Changes in Unemployment, Inflation, and the Price of Food; United States Department of Agriculture: Washington, DC, USA. Accessed January 20, 2021.

Michele Ver Ploeg, Paula Dutko & Vince Breneman (2014) Measuring Food Access and Food Deserts for Policy Purposes, Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 37(2):205 – 225. Accessed January 20, 2021.

Did you find this article useful?

Other Articles in this Series