Food Deserts in POC Communities: How We Got Here and What to Do

By Alexa Santory


The cross-sections of race and socioeconomic status go beyond how much people of color are paid or the kinds of opportunities they’re presented with. They also affect our access to food and the kinds of food we eat. Think about this: how many fast food restaurants and bodegas have you seen while moving through an area predominantly occupied by people of color? How much more junk food is readily available in these communities than healthy, fresh food and produce? In comparison, how many supermarkets, farmers markets, and sit down restaurants do you tend to find in predominantly white neighborhoods? Why is it so much easier to get a Big Mac in the so called “hood” than it is to get one a “good” neighborhood? These things aren’t coincidences. If you’ve ever noticed or even lived within an area with a higher accessibility to junk food, then you’ve seen a food desert firsthand.

What is a food desert?

A food desert is an area where residents have a much harder time finding healthy food options that are affordable, and they are a common trait of urban and low income neighborhoods across the country. It’s been found that if you live in a low income community, have no access to a car, and live more than half a mile away from a grocery store, you live in a food desert. This is the reality for a great deal of people of color all across the country. You really can’t help but wonder, “why?” Why are people of color denied access to basic nutrition? Why do low income communities have to suffer so immensely because of this? Experts on the issue are starting to call it a “food apartheid,” because it looks and feels too planned to be just a coincidence. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food has led to spikes in obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments associated with poor nutrition, for adults and children alike. Some of the reasons stated as to why this is such a commonality in low income areas is because they’re low income, grocers don’t feel like they would make as much money as they could elsewhere. Crime rates in low income neighborhoods also play a role in the lack of grocery stores and supermarkets. People who live in food deserts often have to travel for miles to and from in order to get their weekly groceries. Oftentimes, the grocery stores are overpriced and fresh produce is either severely lacking or just too expensive. This puts low income families in a conundrum — do they spend the little bit they have on groceries that aren’t even worth what they’re being sold for, or do they stretch their money and feed their families with what’s available?


How long has this been going on?

According to one report from NPR, a 28 year resident from Washington, D.C’s Ward 8 was quoted saying that there had never been a real grocery store in that neighborhood for as long as she’s been living there. This has been going on for decades and it’s only now that people are starting to realize the magnitude of what it means to live in one of these areas. We’ve seen efforts from former First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign to help put an end to childhood obesity. Part of that campaign includes subsidizing funds to create grocery stores in food desert areas. Even with the statistics and research and very obvious existence of such areas, there are people who think they’re a myth, which is part of the bigger problem and could be contributing to the fact that they still exist. I could sit here and tell you that it’s just another way for the powers that be to keep people of color in the lower ranks of society and you’d probably agree with me, but that line of thinking is only the tip of the iceberg for the reasons why food deserts exist. However you choose to look at it, keep in mind that the effects are long lasting and sometimes life threatening.

How do you get by if you live in one?

If you or someone you know happens to be living in a food desert, it’s important to know how to get by. Having access to the grocery store may be a major challenge, but knowing how to work your way through a supermarket on a budget is a good skill to have. Here are some of our tips for buying healthy groceries on a budget.


  • Make a list and stick to it. This is crucial, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Grocery stores, especially good ones, can be overwhelming when it comes to options. Don’t get carried away in the aisles and stick to your grocery list. Get enough to get you through the week or even the next two weeks if it’s possible. Make sure your list covers all the bases too — meats, dairy, veggies, fruits, and grains.
  • Pay attention to sales. These are what will get you the most bang for your buck. Grocery stores always have stuff on sale. Make a game plan before you get there and keep what’s on sale in mind, that way you’ll be less tempted to spend more. Usually the stuff that’s on sale includes pastas, canned foods, and healthy snacks like yogurt and granola bars. Anything you can buy multiples of is definitely going to help you stretch your dollar.
  • Don’t buy as much meat. If you consume meat, you know it can get very pricey. You can find good meat without spending an arm and a leg, but you can also opt to replace the protein meat provides with other, cheaper proteins like beans, eggs, or canned fish. I can tell you first hand that certain recipes, like quesadillas, don’t even require meat to be delicious!
  • Buy frozen fruits and veggies. If fresh produce is harder to come by, there’s nothing wrong with buying them frozen! You’ll still be getting the nutrients without breaking the bank on expensive produce, or wasting your money on produce that isn’t even worth the price.
  • Buy certain items in bulk. Non-perishables like rice, oats, beans, and some cereals will stretch your dollar more if you buy them in bulk. They’ll last a lot longer, plus you’ll have the security of knowing they’re available to cook with when you get home.
  • Coupons are your friend! Anyone remember that show Extreme Couponing? Those people truly cracked the code and sometimes even ended up getting money back from the grocery store. Coupons exist to help us save a little cash, and who doesn’t like saving money?

  • Here’s a video by Hanging With the James’ on how to coupon properly!

    Hanging with the James'


    • Plan your meals ahead of time. This takes the pressure off trying to figure out what to eat on a daily basis. You can also make enough so that there are leftovers, which are always better the next day anyway!
    • Buy some groceries online. It’s crazy how far technology has come that we can have our groceries delivered to our doorsteps. While a lot of grocery delivery services tend to be pretty pricey, there are online stores like Brandless and Thrive Market that sell healthy, organic food for way less than the grocery store. Save a bunch of money and don’t even worry about setting foot in a grocery store!


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