What are Food Deserts & How Can We Promote Shopping for Sustainable + Local Produce?



What are Food Deserts?

Food deserts (and no, not food desserts like delicious pie or chocolate chip cookies), are regions where there is a lack of access to a variety of food, especially healthy and sustainable food items. Not surprisingly, however; food deserts are almost always located in regions that are experiencing poverty and have limited income. Between 2000 and 2006, the USDA was able to identify a whopping 6,500 food deserts throughout the United States. Furthermore, it is estimated that 23.5 million people in America are farther than 1 mile to the closest grocery store and of those, 11.5 million people identify as low-income. I became interested in this topic because in my city, Oakland, we have areas that are classified as food deserts. Where the nearest place to buy ‘food’ is a liquor or convenience store.

How are Food Deserts Linked to Climate Change?

When we talk about climate change and sustainability,  we often distance ourselves from others who do not have the ability to make drastic changes to their lifestyles. Especially when it comes to our diets, without getting into the vegetarian/vegan debate, it is unfair to say that in order to combat climate change every person should only eat local, organic food – without first acknowledging the barriers to access and helping break those down. Communities that are classified as food deserts do not have the luxury of having a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or any decent grocery store for that matter. Struggling families have to decide what food they will buy, and more often than not, that means choosing low-cost, unsustainable, packaged meals rather than having to travel across town to shop healthily. This issue is also one that directly relates to environmental racism, as it can take the form of lower quality of air and drinking water.

What Does it Mean to Shop for Sustainable + Local Produce?

Over the past decade, supply and demand for local foods have continued to grow. First, the definition of ‘local’ seems to mean something different for every person. Some folks say 100 miles is considered local, while others say 250 miles is correct. For this project, I will define local produce as being bought at a maximum of 250 miles from the farm it was grown. Buying locally grown produce and food items helps fight climate change by cutting down on the amount of pollution emitted by getting your food to you. This is something shoppers often do not think about when they are picking up fruit and vegetables at a large supermarket, the work it takes to get your groceries to you is left out of the equation. In fact, a meal that is typically bought at a conventional supermarket chain uses 4 to 17 times more petroleum for transport than if that meal were made using ingredients sourced locally. On average, our food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate, so cutting down on that distance greatly helps emissions produced.

Sourcing locally grown produce also means buying things that are in season, rather than putting strain on the earth and transporting out-of-season products from far away. One of the most popular ways to go about doing this is by buying from local farmer’s markets. This is where the consumer (us) gets to almost always buy directly from the source (the different farmers). 

My Solution: People to Produce

After looking over my research, it became abundantly clear that the first step to connecting people to local produce is to spread the word and make the information as accessible as possible. With busy lives, people need information in an easy, concise delivery method. Due to COVID-19 and everything being both online and on social media, I decided to create an Instagram account that is dedicated to providing information on the nearest place to find local produce/food/goods, which are almost always local farmer’s markets. Each Instagram post focuses on a different region, grouped by counties, with information on the location, time, and goods they sell. The information was collected by searching local databases and then compiling it into one digestible format.

Instagram Account: @PeopletoProduce

Below are the posts made to the page thus far, focusing on communities in Virginia, California, and Ohio.

If there were more time, the next step of this process would be to continue to do research on more counties throughout the country and scale the account. Another avenue would be to create a website dedicated to hosting this information.

Additional Solutions to Food Deserts

  • Increasing the availability of healthful, locally sourced foods through:
    • affordable grocery stores
    • affordable markets
    • backyard and community gardens
    • food assistance programs
    • food buying clubs
  • Encouraging healthful dietary habits by providing education and training on food production, preparation, and nutrition
  • Enrolling eligible residents into government nutrition programs
  • Increasing access to local farmers markets
  • Promoting safe and fair farm worker conditions
  • Supporting sustainable agricultural practices that protect the air, water, soil, and habitats
  • Supporting food industry entrepreneurs
  • Celebrating and honoring diverse food cultures
  • Encouraging residents to participate in food system planning
  • Giving residents a say on food-related decisions that people make in government

Your Turn: Engage & Share Your Thoughts

Use THIS link to head over to my project Padlet if you are eager to connect with others on this topic! Here are some questions you can choose from, but you are more than able to pose your own question or share anything else that comes to mind.

  • How can you increase access to healthy + local food in your community?
  • Do you know of any food deserts in your region?
  • How do we make climate change solutions more all-encompassing by taking into consideration the different circumstances that different people face?

Additional Resources

Works Cited

Thanks for visiting my page and engaging with the topic!


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