Here Are All Of The US's Largest Food Deserts

What is a food desert? Imagine having to get all of your groceries from a gas station or local corner store bodega where you're forced to select bags of chips and frozen pizza as sustenance. This is the reality for the millions of citizens who live in food deserts in the United States. The United States lacks equal access to food across communities and food availability is scarce in portions of the country known as food deserts.  

In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture performed a food access study and defined a US food desert as an area where 33 percent of a city’s residents live more than one mile from a supermarket and 20 percent earn below the poverty line. Many residents of food desert locations do not have cars and lack access to public transportation, making them essentially unable to get to a grocery store. Food desert causes are mostly related to economics. Big chain supermarkets have a hard time turning a profit in impoverished areas, which results in places without food cropping up across the country. The effects are devastating. The obesity rates in these areas are generally higher, meaning life-threatening illnesses like diabetes and heart disease are on the rise. Luckily, new laws and various grassroots organizations are currently working to make healthy, affordable food available nationwide. On a local level, many cities have not just opened up food co-ops and food markets in impoverished areas. Local corner stores are also expanding their inventory. Instead of using all of their shelf space for junk food, they are providing more healthy fresh food options. 

To learn more about the issue and what's being done, scan this list of the top food deserts in the United States. 

  • New York City, New York
    Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

    Cause of the food desert: A combination of factors cause food deserts in New York. Grocery stores often have small profit margins, especially when competing with high numbers of surrounding fast food chains, and space constraints are also an issue in the city. Rising rent prices also make it difficult to operate full-service supermarkets.  

    Size of the population affected: In recent years, research has shifted from studying food deserts specifically to other factors that affect nutrition, as well as the underlying causes of deserts, so recent statistics are hard to come by. In 2008, however, the New York Department of City Planning found that 3 million city residents live in a food desert. Also, from 2000 to 2014, there was a sharp rise in the presence of fast food restaurants across New York, particularly in Brooklyn. The term "food swamp" is becoming increasingly common, referring to areas with a disproportionate ratio of fast food and convenience stores to grocery stores. While it's hard to quantify the current size of New York's food desert, general trends show a rise in unhealthy food options over conventional grocery stores. 

    The effects: The Bronx is the area most affected by New York food deserts. The Harlem River is the only thing that separates the Bronx, one of the poorest areas in the country, to Manhattan, which is one of the richest. Most Bronx residents are forced to shop at local corner stores with a very limited selection of fresh vegetables and fruit. The health statistics reveal the disparity between the boroughs. Residents of the Bronx suffer from the highest rate of deaths related to diabetes in all of New York City.

    Efforts to improve: One Bronx-based organization called is trying to provide children with easy access to healthy food. Two of the group's main goals are to make sure that schools provide healthy meals and to improve fresh food availability. Additionally, the city has started programs like "Moooove to 1% Milk” and “Move to Fruits and Vegetables." Since so many residents get their entire food supply from bodegas, these groups advocate for corner stores to carry fresh food and 1% milk.

  • Atlanta, Georgia
    Photo: Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

    Cause of the food desert: Starting in the late 1990s, smaller grocery store chains that dominated the market in Georgia began to lose business when chains like Walmart and Publix moved in. These establishments offered lower prices and bigger selections. Big retailers drove many of the smaller grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods out of business and ultimately those residents out of local healthy options. 

    Size of the population affected: As research shifts to studying causes over size, statistics are usually from 2015 to 2016, but still give some sense of the size of the desert A 2015 investigation performed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution determined that almost 2 million Georgia residents (about 500,000 children) reside in what can be classified as a food desert. In 2016, a study revealed a total of 35 food deserts in and around the city of Atlanta.

    The effects: Fast food restaurants took the place of grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. Joints like McDonalds became the standard meal replacement for urban residents who had issues with getting to a grocery store out of walking distance. Without the option for affordable healthy food, Georgian residents are more likely to be severely overweight. Obesity rates rose from 30.7% to 31.4% between 2016 and 2017 and deaths from obesity-related conditions like cardiovascular disease were also on the rise. 

    Efforts to improve: It's not enough to simply add a grocery store to these food deserts as people have to learn how to eat healthy. There have been several initiatives to change the way the people of Atlanta think about food. In the late 1990s, there was a community garden movement that resulted in 300 community gardens all around the city area. Many residents learned how to grow their own vegetables and fruit.

    Another solution was to bring in nonprofit organizations that provided Georgians with fresh food at fair prices. These nonprofits aimed to try to make healthy food available to everyone in the state. Additionally, local grocery stores began offering more organic products. 

  • Cause of the food desert: There is a serious lack of public transportation options in Detroit, making it difficult to travel out of your way to access a grocery store if you don't have a car. While Detroit's economy has seen some improvement in recent years, poverty rates are still high. This makes it difficult to support large scale grocery stores throughout the city. 

    Size of the population affected: In 2018, the Michigan Department of Agriculture reported that there were 19 neighborhoods in the city of Detroit that could be classified as a food desert. In addition to this, a 2017 study found over 30,000 residents have no access to a full-line grocery store. 

    The effects: Obesity rates in Detroit are higher than average, with 30.8% of adults in the city being obese. Low-income individuals, those most likely to live in food deserts, are most likely to be overweight. Diabetes rates are also rising in the city. 

    Efforts to improve: Detroit has become a hot spot for dining options, so much so that some even think that the label of food desert should be dropped. 

    The city has seen a large increase in planting farms in urban neighborhoods. Several successful city farm programs such as Michigan Farming Initiative and Keep Growing Detroit and Detroit Black Community have given lower income residents the availability of fresh food at affordable prices.  

    There are also a plethora of food assistance programs available for qualified residents of Detroit. Many of these programs have been set up to help the people who need them. Additionally, the reported number of grocery stores in 2017 was between 77 and 155. Although the city may not have any huge chain stores, there are currently several smaller food stores thriving in urban areas, which could help reduce the number of food deserts in coming years. 

  • Chicago, Illinois
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Cause of the food desert: Many large grocery stores and other food businesses have had to close their shops in many Chicago neighborhoods because of poor economic conditions.

    Size of the population affected: With shifting research focusing on causal factors over the size of deserts, as well as evolving definitions of the term, the precise number of current Chicago food deserts remains unclear. Studies from 2006 indicate over 500,000 (mostly African Americans) Chicago residents lived in food deserts with one third of those residents being children. A 2011 study indicated the nearest grocery store was almost twice the distance as the closest fast food restaurant. By 2017, a total of 22 Chicago communities had been officially declared a food desert. 

    The effects: According to a 2017 study, Illinois has the 18th highest adult obesity rate in the country and Chicago obesity rates are over 30%. Obesity-related health issues, like diabetes and high blood pressure, are also common in Chicago. 

    Efforts to improve: Food justice activists have opened more food co-ops in areas of the city where supermarkets have not been able to stay in business. The co-ops sell fresh organic fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Some of the co-ops even offer classes that specialize in nutrition and how to cook healthy meals.

    Additionally, Chicago's governor Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 3157 in 2017. The legislation made it a law that the state Department of Agriculture must perform a full analysis on the health effects of all the food deserts in the state of Illinois.