Food Deserts: What Will Abandoned America Eat?

By Zoe Kornberg

Picture yourself as a member of the lower working class of America. You work two low-paying jobs, likely without benefits. You do not own a car, but you somehow manage to get your children to school and yourself to work every day. You do not have time to walk or take the bus three miles out of your way and back to the closest supermarket; nor do you have the money to buy much food, or the time to cook it. Conveniently, you walk two blocks to the liquor store to buy a ready-made meal, perhaps a soft drink and a hot dog.

This is the daily (and deadly) eating situation facing lower class families in inner cities and rural communities all across America in areas called food deserts. According to a 2009 study by the USDA, a food desert is defined as an area with “limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food.” Food deserts are found in regions with high poverty rates all over the country, whether they be urban or rural. High rates of chronic diet-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are directly linked to low rates of supermarkets per capita.

Take the Bay Area, for example. There are five grocery stores within a mile of my apartment on the south side of campus, and I can count on two hands other supermarkets or grocery stores in Berkeley I have frequented in the past. A fifteen-minute drive away in East Oakland or West Oakland, supermarkets are virtually nonexistent. The closest stores with fresh fruits and vegetables are in Emeryville, San Leandro, Berkeley, and the gentrified parts of Oakland, such as Piedmont and the Oakland Hills. Instead of supermarkets, which sell a wide variety of foods and produce, liquor stores and convenience stores saturate the flatlands of East and West Oakland. These so-called grocery stores sell high-processed foods and very little fresh produce at surprisingly high prices. Fast food chains blanket the flatlands too.

This image from google maps shows red dots overwhelming the impoverished flatlands of East Oakland. The red dots are convenience grocery stores and liquor stores such as Dave’s Grocery and Liquor, N&S Discount Store, Jalisco Market. The pinpoints with letters, located in the gentrified neighborhoods of Lake Merrit, Oakland Hills, and Alameda, are supermarkets and specialty food stores, such as Lucky, Whole Foods Market, and Piedmont Grocery Company.

Oakland is a textbook example of an urban food desert. The shocking lack of healthy food and the ubiquity of unhealthy food in the low-income parts of Oakland—and in food deserts all across America for that matter—did not pop up overnight. A mix of policies on the local, state, and national level slowly drove the supermarkets away.

According to UC Berkeley grad student in the Department of Geography, Nathan McClintock, Oakland’s food desert story begins almost a century ago with the racist homeownership policies of the Federal Housing Administration. Homeowners associations created racial covenants to box non-whites into West Oakland.

On top of that, banks redlined Oakland’s neighborhoods, or in other words graded property values to determine who to lend to. The banks heavily favored white neighborhoods and put the majority black neighborhoods in red—meaning those properties did not qualify for home loans.

The next grade up was yellow, or “decreasing desirability.” This was the grade given to most of East Oakland, where the Latino and Asian communities settled in old single-family homes. These neighborhoods received very little investment and gradually turned red. Whites fled to the suburbs to the south and east.

Whether measured by the Gini coefficient or some other calculation, it is undeniable that the gap between rich and poor has widened. After World War II ended, investment in Oakland industry decreased over time and unemployment grew—especially for people of color. Oakland became increasingly segregated and impoverished. As old policies of segregation became illegal, new ones under benign names took their place: subprime lending, urban redevelopment, etc…

Crime rates rose steadily and public services, such as public transportation were cut. From a supermarket chain’s perspective, it makes sense that Safeway or another food store would not want to have a branch in the flatlands of Oakland. Unfortunately, it hurts the poorest people of Oakland the most. This same story is echoed throughout the industrial hubs of America. Detroit. Chicago. New York City. Everywhere you will find a similar story to Oakland’s, and the people who live in food deserts are paying the price.

Food deserts exist in rural areas too, but their causes are not quite the same. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University showed that there is a strong correlation between being poor and living in a food desert. There is very little public transportation in rural areas and vast distances between supermarkets or big box stores that sell healthy foods, such as Walmart. For people living in poverty, often without the use of a car, this is an impossible situation. Again, it makes sense from a business prospective: why put a supermarket or grocery store in a place that can only be reached by only a few poor customers?

Obesity, diabetes, and cancer rates affect low-income Americans disproportionately, and it is no surprise if you look at what America eats. Food deserts help explain why so many poor Americans eat cheap, unhealthy, highly-processed foods that give them chronic health problems. This institutionalized lack of access to healthy food is a public health hazard, caused by decades of public policy failings on national, state, and local scales.

So what can be done to solve the problem of food deserts? Many inner-cities areas are now home to urban garden projects. In Oakland there are numerous projects, including Oakland Based Urban Gardens (OBUGS), and the Oakland Food Connection. These organizations grow food in gardens in the flatlands to be bought at low prices by low-income families who otherwise cannot access or afford these healthy fruits and vegetables.

Some sell their produce in green grocer stores, such as People’s Grocery. Alternatively, some gardens run community supported agriculture programs or CSAs, which are a weekly produce delivery service. The main goals of these programs are to give the poor access to healthy foods, pump up the local economy, educate the poor about healthy eating, and advocate for change in the inner-city.

Despite these inspiring non-profits, McClintock calculates that urban gardens of Oakland only provide 5% of the needed produce in their city. Reversing a century or more of racist housing policy will take time and considering the divisive and partisan politics in both the California and national legislatures, I wouldn’t hold my breath. In the mean time, an effective solution might be to encourage supermarkets to come back to food deserts, such as Oakland. Pennsylvania recently enacted the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, and according to the website it “has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, creating or preserving more than 5,000 jobs.”

Locally, you can volunteer with some of these local urban garden groups mentioned above and help spread awareness of food deserts. Check out all the urban food projects in Oakland here.


McClintock, Nathan. “From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Demarcated Devaluation in the Flatlands of Oakland, California.” In Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman (eds) Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability. MIT Press (in press, 2011).

Schafft, K., Jensen, E., Hinrichs, C. “Food Deserts and Overweight Schoolchildren: Evidence from Pennsylvania.” Rural Sociology 74.2 (2009): 153-177.

Ver Ploeg, M., Breneman, V., et al. “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” USDA Report to Congress. June 2009.

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  • scottshapiro

    Great post, Zoe. This really shows how much we take food access for granted!

  • Alyssa Kies

    It’s astounding how intricately racism is woven into our society. I really hope that there are more people helping out with not only providing access to healthy food in impoverished areas, but teaching people what it means to eat healthy and why it’s important.

  • Ian

    It is very unfortunate that these food deserts exist, especially in such close proximity to areas with a high level of food and social consciousness like Berkeley and San Francisco. I have researched the “redlining” and racist policies of the 1960’s and beyond, and what seems to have been a situation which effected minorities is now effecting all races who live in poverty. The optimist in me would like to think that there can be a solution just based on education and perhaps developmental inputs of capital, but I know how slowly these things work and it will likely be a long time before quality food at a reasonable price will be available to these poor food deserts.

  • Anonymous

    I think you did an awesome job researching and writing about this important topic. Having grown up in Oakland for the past 20 years, I have experienced living in neighborhoods where there are more liquor stores nearby than there are supermarkets. All around me, I saw youth purchasing junk food before going to school and adults debating whether or not to purchase vegetables, which are more expensive than other foods. I agree that it’s unfortunate that these food deserts exist, especially since it does perpetuate obesity, greater health illnesses, and unhealthy lifestyles, which affects peoples behavior in school, in work, or in their communities. I support your suggestion in having more supermarkets in closer proximity to low-income communities. However, some factors need to be accounted for, such as the affordability price of the produce, how accessible it is, and how much funding is there to keep it afloat. Oakland is a very huge city, with a North, South, East, and West section, so lots of work needs to be done to make healthy food accessible. I believe that this can happen, but lots more research and political/financial support must exist to keep reach this solution.

  • Lourdes Juarez

    Zoe, this is a very information-packed, concise piece. I have been studying land use pattern for years now, from when I started Berkeley several years ago to when I worked as a planner just recently, and I don’t think I’ve seen a good explanation like this one in a while. I think I’ll start referencing this piece from now on! Did you get a chance to visit some of the places in Oakland? Even the places you think are going to be better off, based on economic income, for example, are simply not as well served by good sources of food as we would imagine.

  • Anonymous

    I’d agree with Ian that a solution based solely on education and developmental inputs of capital will not adequately address the issue of food deserts in a timely manner. I wonder what types of public policies and programs could be implemented to not only encourage the growth of these community gardens, but encourage the replication of the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard Program. It seems that the same factors that are correlated with childhood obesity and food deserts. I wonder if Michelle Obama, who advocates for the reduction of childhood obesity, might incorporate the reduction of food deserts into the goals of a childhood obesity reduction program.

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