What is a ‘food desert’?

Page last modified 13/6/2019


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The term ‘desert’ was first used to describe an urban environment lacking in certain facilities as far back as 1973 when J BAINES (The Environment) wrote “The large suburban estates that are a recent feature of the townscape are epitomised by the regular rows of similarly styled houses that have earned for themselves the title of suburban deserts.  They often lack the shops, churches, public houses, and social centres that allow a community life to develop”.


The actual term ‘food desert’ is quoted, by S CUMMINS (British Medical Journal, 2002, Vol.325, p.436), as having been originally used by a resident of a public sector housing scheme in the west of Scotland in the early 1990s.


Links to definitions of ‘food deserts’

BBC 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/shropshire/7143127.stm

The Independent, 2007, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-deserts-depriving-towns-of-fresh-fruit-and-vegetables-764804.html


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Definitions of ‘food deserts’, pre-2000


1) Low Income Project Team (1996) ‘areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food’.

2) The Independent (11 June 1997) ‘food deserts were those areas of inner cities where cheap nutritious food is virtually unobtainable.  Car-less residents, unable to reach out-of-town supermarkets, depend on the corner shop where prices are high, products are processed and fresh fruit and vegetables are poor or non-existent’.

3) The Observer (13 September 1998) ‘many poor housing estates were left as food deserts by the closure of local food shops’ and that in the few local food shops left, prices were up to 60% more than in the supermarkets.

4) The Guardian II (17 March 1999) ‘on the poorer estates of Coventry, low cost, good quality, food is not available to the poorest.  These people ‘either have to shop at expensive local stores or pay for transport and lug small children for miles and back with shopping’.


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Non-UK food deserts


Food deserts occur in other countries besides the UK.  In many Anglophone countries – for example the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the issue is termed ‘food insecurity’.  This is the inability of an individual or household to be certain that they will be able to afford to access a healthy and adequate diet for the foreseeable future.  Research into food deserts / insecurity in the USA has tended to focus on the distance rural people have to travel to a store selling healthy food (as opposed to a local store selling few fruit and vegetables), and the lack of easy access by poor urban people to healthy food.  Lack of urban access and poverty has been exacerbated by poverty and race, and the cost of bus travel from poor areas to good-quality supermarkets.  In the US, access to social support payments by the unemployed is considerably more restricted than the equivalent unemployment benefits paid in many European countries.  Hence the US has institutions called food banks, and their local outlets, food pantries, which do not occur to the same extent in Europe.  Food banks / pantries may be regarded as the equivalent of charity shops in the UK, except that food banks / pantries effectively provide food for the poor, rather than clothes and other items as might be found in a typical UK charity shop.  Most food available at food banks is high-calorie, little is fresh, and this food tends to be obesogenic.  However the Food Conservation and Energy Act, passed by the US Congress in 2008, has defined ‘food deserts’ in a more European manner.  This Act defines food deserts as ‘areas ....with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighbourhoods’. 


In Eire Dr Sharon Friel has noted poverty as a major cause of poor eating habits.  People generally know what they should be eating but cannot afford such foods.  As in the UK, many poorer Irish cannot access the out-of-town supermarkets and are forced to buy food at more expensive local shops.  Poorer mothers may feed the children well but subsist on tea and biscuits themselves.  Fish, whilst nutritious, has the stigma of once having been a food consumed by the poorest, in the more rural areas, who could not afford meat.  Therefore fish is shunned by many more affluent Irish households today.


In continental Europe, researchers have focussed on the relative costs of fresh  /nutritious food and of obesogenic but low-nutrient foods; the latter are much cheaper and therefore appeal to poorer consumer son limited budgets; there has been relatively little work here on distance / neighbourhood access to fresh healthy foodstuffs.


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Recent research, since 2000


Since 2000, research into food access in the UK has broadened to include a wide range of biological, economic, food production and consumption, physical, and social factors.  Perhaps the best example of this to date is the Foresight Report, (Butland B et al, 2007), published by the Government Office for Science (UK Government).  This report has comprehensive feedback diagrams indicating the positive or negative effects on diet and obesity of many different factors in the environment.


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