The term food desert is used to describe areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food, usually due to a lack of large supermarkets nearby.

This is not a problem if you are able to get in your car and drive to the closest supermarket to buy your fresh fruit and vegetables at a reasonable price. But, if you do not have access to transport because you cannot afford it or are physically unable, like 17% of households within food deserts, then this is a different story.

A Social Market Foundation study has found that in the UK 1.2 million people live in food deserts in deprived areas, and that these people find it difficult to access a wide range of healthy and affordable foods. Therefore, we can class these people as food insecure as they do not have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

So how do those living in deprived food deserts feed themselves?

Convenience stores

A local convenience store in Westfield, Somerset. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Food deserts are littered with small convenience stores, in which there is a smaller selection of food and prices are higher. Customers can pay up to 7% more to shop at convenience stores compared to larger supermarkets. This reliance on convenience stores leads to higher grocery expenses; meaning it’s not only availability but also affordability that impacts people on a lower income living in food deserts.

When poor people pay more for essential goods and services (like groceries) this is called a poverty premium. A University of Bristol study calculated that in the UK the average annual poverty premium per low-income household is £490, with some paying up to a shocking £1,680 extra for basic services. This means a higher percentage (of an already limited) disposable income is spent on groceries; leaving less money for other essential expenses. Therefore, living in a food desert exposes low income households to another aspect of the poverty premium.

Living in a food desert may also mean that low income households are unable to take advantage of discounts and buy in bulk; a method used by many shoppers to save money on groceries. A study published by The University of Michigan found that low income households may be less responsive to promotions requiring an increase in short-term expenditures, adding a new dimension to the poverty premium. This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • Some simply cannot afford to spend more money at the time (even though it is cheaper in the long term).
  • The convenience stores may not have the same offers or products on sale as the large supermarkets.
  • People may not be able to transport large amounts of groceries back to their house, which may be too small to store the items anyway.

Impact on health

Living in neighbourhoods where there is poverty, a lack of large supermarkets and no access to transport impacts people’s health due to their inability to access affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. This forces people to buy cheaper foods, which are often less nutritious and more energy-dense; for many, eating their ‘five-a-day’ is out of the question.

This has negative impacts on health as shown by a study, conducted by Cambridge University, that found people living on low income who live furthest away from a supermarket were more likely to be obese than those who lived closest. It has also been shown that living in poverty has negative impacts children’s health as a report for NHS digital highlights the disparities in children’s health; 26.8% of children in the most deprived areas are obese compared to only 11.7% in the least deprived. This highlights the direct link between low income and negative health impacts.

Food swamps’ can also be blamed for the high rates of obesity seen in low income food deserts. Food swamps are areas where there is not only limited access to healthy food options, but also a high density of unhealthy fast food and junk food shops. Unsurprisingly, high levels of obesity can be seen in these areas as there is unlimited access to unhealthy food, which is also likely to be cheaper than a healthier alternative.

The future of food deserts

Although many people continue to live in food deserts across the UK, there are a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the impact on those who suffer the most.

Food boxes (from community food schemes) are an easy way to access healthy food. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Community food schemes aim to get members of the local community involved in projects that provide affordable food for everyone. There are a number of different types of food schemes than run across the UK. One example is Community Shop; a social enterprise that sets up small grocery shops in local communities across the country, that provide good food for low prices by using surplus food from supermarkets. This means those living on a low income that cannot access larger supermarkets still have the option to eat healthy, affordable food.

Local authorities can also take steps to reduce the impact on those living in deprived food deserts. A report by The Food Commission gives guidance on how the local government in London could improve access to affordable healthy food through initiatives such as running school breakfast clubs.

Businesses also have a responsibility to help reduce the impact of living in a deprived food desert. If convenience stores supplied a wider range of healthy food options at the same price as their larger counterparts, then low income households in food deserts would have better access to affordable healthy food; while reducing the burden of the poverty premium at the same time.

However, the poorest members of our society are still classed as food insecure because they only have access to cheap unhealthy food. This inevitably causes high levels of obesity, especially in children, and has other negative impacts on health.

So we are forced to ask ourselves; are we doing enough to support those that are struggling the most?