Structural Barriers to Local Food Part I: Rural Food Deserts

Earlier this week I talked about the problems of framing the local and organic food movements as an individual moral choice. As Mark Winne’s work in Hartford, Connecticut demonstrates, awareness of and desire for local and organic food is not limited to the Whole Foods shopper buying expensive cheese, but is common among all racial, ethic and socio-economic groups. Most people want to be able to choose organic and local food for themselves and their families, for a host of reasons.

The crucial difference between those who buy organic and local and those who do not, but would like to, is access. Barriers to access can include both time and money. However, the most important limiting factor is a clear lack of grocery stores and other retailers within a reasonable distance who carry affordable, healthful products and produce.

This lack of retail sources for healthy, local or organic food is one of the biggest sticking points for the spread of the organic and local foods movements, and is related to our national crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Time can be reallocated or shortcuts in food preparation found, buying in bulk and on sale can trim costs, and evolution in food stamps and WIC are beginning to support eating produce. But none of that will help if there’s nowhere to buy fresh produce, let alone organic or local fruits and vegetables.

A “food desert” is an area where residents have limited access to supermarkets and supercenters where a variety of groceries and produce can be found. Some researchers draw a distinction between “food deserts”, where all of the population has low access to supermarkets, and “low-access” areas, where more than half the population has limited access to supermarkets.

The term “limited access” in this case is generally defined as being over 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. Obviously, this limitation will vary in severity depending on the area in question. However, it is clear that distance from grocery stores will most strongly affect low income individuals, those with disabilities and the elderly, who are far more likely to be reliant on public transportation. Low-access areas and food deserts in the United States are shockingly widespread, and are found in both urban and rural areas.

A study by Troy Blanchard, Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and Lois Wright Morton, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University, quantifies this problem.

Low-access map

National Food desert map

According to their figures, 803 of United States counties, or 26%, have low access to food, while 401, or 13%, are food deserts. They found that residents of low-access and food desert counties are more likely to lack a high school diploma or GED, have a lower family income, have higher individual and family poverty rates, and have a population which is older than average. In four food desert counties in Iowa that they focused on more closely, the researchers found that 64% did not consume adequate amounts of vegetables daily, while 45% did not consume adequate fruit, 34% lacked adequate dairy and 30% lacked adequate protein.

A study by Dr. Kai Schafft, a professor of education at Penn State and director of the Center for Rural Education and Communities, found a correlation between Pennsylvania food deserts and levels of obesity in rural areas.

pennsylvania food deserts


A similar study conducted by Dr. Blanchad and the late Dr. Thomas Lyson, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, highlights food deserts in the American Southeast. As they say, “prior studies [focusing on food intake and dietary quality with respect to individual characteristics such as family structure, income and race] have overlooked the role of commercial food distribution in the United States and the manner in which the structure of retail food distribution conditions the accessibility and availability of food within local communities.”

The first part of their study attempts to quantify the food deserts in the non-metropolitan south, as determined by the percentage of a county’s population with “convenient access” (10 mils or less) to a “large food retailer” (50+ employee grocery store.) Their data was taken from the 2002 Census and a 1999 business survey.

Many counties had “low access”, while 256 of 873 non-metropolitan counties (30%) were food deserts. These food deserts are concentrated in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Southeastern low-access conties

Southeastern food desert counties










According to Blanchard and Lyson, the smaller clusters of food deserts in the Mississippi Delta, the northern Appalachian region in Kentucky and West Virginia, and what they term the “Black Belt” from southwestern Louisiana through central Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, are especially significant because those areas historically had a high poverty rate. In 1999, the poverty rate was approximately 21% in non-metropolitan areas of Kentucky and West Virginia and approaching 25% for non-metropolitan areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.

This study is particularly interesting as Blanchard and Lyson move beyond simply locating food deserts to identifying the food options found in those counties.


According to their data, only 10 of the 256 food desert counties have a supermarket, only one has a large supercenter store, and 12 have fruit and vegetable markets, which were most common in counties adjacent to metropolitan areas. The food desert counties had twice as many small grocers as the non-food desert counties, and all had at least one small grocer or a convenience store. There were similar numbers of convenience and gas station stores in food desert and non-food desert counties. Interestingly, there were substantially fewer fast food outlets in food desert counties. Ultimately, the data suggest that small grocers are unable to compete with larger food markets in non-food desert counties, but remain the primary source of groceries in food desert areas. However, at small grocers the prices may be higher and the quality lower, leading to a significant impact on the health of the population.

Poor access to grocery stores is not limited to more rural regions. In cities, while there may be many grocery stores within 10 miles of a given neighborhood, the neighborhood may still have low access to grocery stores and healthy food retailers. Part II will address urban food deserts.







Morton, Lois Writght and Troy C. Blanchard. “Starved for Access: Life in Rural America’s Food Deserts.” Rural Realities 1, no. 4. (March 6, 2008),

Blanchard, Troy and Thomas Lyson. “Food Availability & Food Deserts in the Nonmetropolitan South.” Food Assistance Needs of the South’s Vulnerable Populations. Number 12, April 2006. (March 6, 2008),

4 responses to “Structural Barriers to Local Food Part I: Rural Food Deserts

  1. Pingback: Feeding America: How the hell did we get here? « Ukiah Blog Live

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