The paradox of food deserts

Food is grown in rural areas, but many rural communities lack access to healthy food. MSU College of Law adjunct professor Scott Haskell elaborates on an issue discussed at Our Table on food policy.

I was extremely fortunate to be on the panel for the Our Table discussion at the 2018 MSU Global Food Law Current Issues Conference on June 19. The conversation on what shapes food laws in relation to food safety and public health was a well-received forum. I had a great time discussing this topic (and others), and had the opportunity to interact with several other panel members who did a really great job discussing and answering questions on many aspects of food and nutrition, and the social aspect of agriculture.

One focus of the panel discussion was the concept of a food desert. Though food professionals commonly use this term when discussing inner-city populations, it also is a critical issue in rural and less-developed areas of the United States. The conversation about food deserts at Our Table allowed for us to talk about some of the solutions to improving food access for rural Americans and the policies that could help or hinder that process.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet.” According to the CDC, Many Americans living in rural, minority, or low-income areas are subjected to food deserts and may be unable to access affordable, healthy foods, leaving their diets lacking essential nutrients.” This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers. As an agriculture kid, I grew up in a rural farming area of the Southwest. There was little opportunity to purchase fresh and nutritious food locally without a substantial drive from my home and work.

Food deserts have become a large problem helping to fuel our national obesity and diabetes epidemic. Rural areas commonly have local convenience stores that provide mostly highly-processed, fattening and sugar-laden food and drink. Many rural Americans have limited access to affordable, nutritious foods because they do not live near a full-spectrum supermarket or large grocery store.

In its 2009 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service noted that much of rural America lives in census tracts (areas) that are 10 miles from access to providers of whole food (healthy foods, fruits and vegetables). According to the USDA, to qualify as a low-access community, at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles.

The real paradox of our unhealthy food supply system is that many rural communities lack healthy food access, even though the food we eat is grown in rural places. Our current food distribution system is failing the very rural communities that grow our food.

There are many programs that work to help more expand access to healthy foods for those who aren’t able to purchase such food regularly. One such effort is the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, an innovative program that enables three federal agencies — the USDA, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Health and Human Services — to work together to increase access to healthy foods in underserved urban and rural communities. Others include the Kansas State University Rural Grocery Initiative and the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center. Although these programs do make a difference, it will take community involvement to shop locally and eat locally-raised fruits and vegetables to keep small town suppliers in business.

Scott Haskell is the director of professional services with Sustainable Global Agriculture Solutions, LLP, in Seattle and an adjunct professor with the MSU College of Law's Global Food Law program and the MSU Institute for Food Law and Regulations. You can reach him at

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