How the Covid-19 Pandemic Affects Food Deserts

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly interrupted many individuals' access to quality food. Scott Haskell argues that improved laws and regulations must be enacted to help protect food-challenged communities.

Food Mart out of business.

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.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines urban food deserts as areas where people live more than 1 mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or ten miles away in rural areas. Communities that lack affordable and nutritious food are commonly known as food deserts. Food insecurity is much more profound within these food deserts. Additionally, food insecurity is defined as the ‘disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.’ However, realistically most nutritionists and community leaders consider food deserts to be ‘any place where fresh food is sparsely available.’ Fresh wholesome foods (e.g., low sugar mildly processed carbohydrates, fresh vegetables, fruits) are the primary issue. Many families living below the federal government designated poverty level are even more likely to have issues accessing fresh food near where they live wither in urban or rural communities.

The USDA divides food insecurity into two categories:

  • Low food security: Reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security: Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

Not surprisingly, a new factor has now been associated with food deserts: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly interrupted many disenfranchised individuals’ lifestyle and subsequent quality food access; it has severely impacted food insecurity affecting the health and wellbeing of individuals and local/regional public health. 

Researchers in 2020 found that among 3219 respondents to the USDA’s six-item validated food security module to measure food insecurity before COVID-19 and since COVID-19, “there was nearly a one-third increase (32.3%) in household food insecurity since COVID-19 with 35.5% of food insecure households classified as newly food insecure. Respondents experiencing a job loss were at higher odds of experiencing food insecurity.” (Niles, et al. 2020) These researchers also found “that those experiencing food insecurity had higher odds of facing access challenges and utilizing coping strategies, including two-thirds of households eating less since COVID-19. Significant differences in coping strategies were documented between respondents in newly food insecure vs. consistently insecure households.”

Food insecurity may be long term or short term (especially during the time of this crisis); it may be influenced by a number of factors including income, transportation availability, physical challenges, un-employment or under employment, the individual’s ethnicity, as well as purchasing proximity issues.

Food deserts, food insecurity, and COVID-19, have proven to have a deadly impact on many individuals living in urban and rural communities; especially impacting women and children. Current research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that COVID-19 infections among Latino and Black communities are approximately 4.7 times greater than similar Caucasian populations. This CDC research suggests that these Covid-19 infections are influenced by the social determinants of food insecurity and the nutritional quality of food found in food deserts.

As mentioned earlier, the USDA defines food insecurity as the lack of consistent access to enough food for a person to live an active, healthy life. The pandemic spread of COVID-19 has increased food insecurity and impacted the public health and nutritional capabilities of these food desert communities. Both transportation and unemployment are the newer driving factors of this pandemic induced food insecurity.

Transportation and road conditions may adversely affect physical access to quality fresh food. This seems to be especially true for rural and urban areas and the proximity to nutritious full-service grocery stores; supermarkets are often unavailable to these individuals. Avoiding public transportation to the supermarket during the pandemic can lead to substantial food insecurity. In many instances, the distances between communities and supermarkets or grocery stores may be substantial; many smaller local markets have closed down or reduced their hours of operation due to the pandemic. Personal and community lack of access to public transportation or a personal vehicle limits access to nutritious food consumption.

Pandemic induced high unemployment and underemployment rates can substantially affect a growing food demand within food deserts. “Children with unemployed parents have higher rates of food insecurity than children with employed parents.” (Niles, 2020)

Lower-priced reduced nutrition meals from local fast-food restaurants and small neighborhood grocery stores have helped lead to a rise in localized diabetes and hypertension in food insecure populations. Food insecurity is normally associated with numerous adverse health outcomes, including coronary heart disease, diabetes mellitus (Type 2 Diabetes), hypertension, depression and mental health issues as well as an increased risk of disease induced mortality.

Sadly, the COVID-19 death rate of under or poorly fed communities increases with the inherent underlying health issues associated with food desert induced diets. These changes may be evident long after the pandemic subsides. Improved laws and regulations must be enacted to help protect these food-challenged communities.

Food law impacts our community health through a diverse array of multi-layered improvements and implemented regulations. Both federal and local as well as state governments are beginning to recognize issues and are becoming instrumental in updating and changing food safety and food desert laws and policies. For instance, the USDA, Health and Human Services, and Treasury, have joined together to develop the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) to “improve access to healthy, affordable foods” in food deserts.

States like New York, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana have begun to develop extensive and progressive programs to bring healthy food to low-income urban and rural communities. Indiana, Texas, Missouri, and Virginia have introduced legislation affecting food deserts. In New Jersey, the Food Desert Produce Pilot Program (A 4704 Act 91) directs the state Department of Agriculture to create a food desert produce pilot program, establishing to provide residents in food desert communities with access to fresh and affordable produce.

It should be noted that future food desert studies should consider the basic characteristics of communities and households during and post Covid-19 that influence food insecurity. This additional pandemic evidence may help facilitate public health efforts to address food insecurity as a social determinant of health within food deserts.



Hanmer, J., et al (2021) Association between Food Insecurity and Health-Related Quality of Life: a Nationally Representative 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; [updated 2017 Oct 4; cited 2017 Nov 27]. 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.

Niles, MT., et al. (2020) The Early Food Insecurity Impacts of COVID-19 Nutrients 2020 Jul 15;12(7):2096. doi: 10.3390/nu12072096. Accessed January 28, 2021.

Koo, J.R.; Cook, A.R.; Park, M.; Sun, Y.; Sun, H.; Lim, J.T.; Tam, C.; Dickens, B.L. (2020) Interventions to mitigate early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Singapore: A modelling study. Lancet Infect. Dis. Accessed January 23, 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.

United States Department of Labor (2020) The Employment Situation-April 2020; United States Department of Labor: Washington DC, USA Accessed January 10, 2021.

Hake, M.; Engelhard, E.; Dewey, A.; Gundersen, C. (2020) The Impact of the Coronavirus on Child Food Insecurity; Feeding America: Chicago, IL, USA Accessed January 12, 2021.

Wolfson, J.A.; Leung, C.W. Food (2020) Insecurity and COVID-19: Disparities in Early Effects for US Adults. Nutrients 2020, 12, 1648. Accessed January 14, 2021

Niles, M.T.; Neff, R.; Biehl, E.; Bertmann, F.; Morgan, E.; Wentworth, T. (2020) Food Access and Security During Coronavirus Survey- Version 1.0. Harvard Dataverse V2 Accessed January 16, 2021

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