Food Deserts and Food Apartheid: How Did We Get Here?

Hi everyone! I’m back with a new blog post. Today I want to discuss the differences between a food desert and food apartheid. 

What is a Food Desert? 

Let’s talk food deserts and food apartheid. I know we have all heard of a food desert before. The definition of a food desert is simply a geographic space without access to a supermarket or any other source of healthful food.

A USDA Economic Research Service report to Congress on the topic found that 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, "live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket."

What is Food Apartheid? 

When I attended a health conference in February I learned of a new (to me) term call food apartheid. I immediately thought about racial apartheid in South Africa and didn't automatically make the connection between that term and food. The presenter mentioned that by using the term “desert” it is implying that the lack of food in certain geographic areas exists because of something naturally occurring like a regular desert. This diminishes the fact that food inequalities are systemic, not accidental.

Food apartheid however acknowledges that areas void of healthier food options are structural and intentional, not a natural phenomenon like a desert is. By shifting our language we can better grasp the true meaning of these deeply rooted structures at play, and we can better address the issue. 


According to lower-income families have access to fewer supermarkets and other healthy food retail outlets that provide a wide selection of affordable, nutritious foods. This problem impacts residents of both urban and rural areas across the country and is compounded by disproportionately higher rates of diet-related disease and the lost commercial vitality that makes communities livable and helps local economies thrive.

Why Do Food Deserts/ Food Apartheid Exist?

Why are certain areas void of healthy foods? You have racism and “redlining” to thank. In the 1930s, The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps of many major urban centers that showed the lending risk in specific neighborhoods( These so called riskier areas were outlined in red. This is how the term redlining came to be. Redlined” areas were often determined based on a high rate of African American residents. See map below.

Redlining relates to food deserts in that supermarkets were created with suburban residents in mind, and so the forces that created the suburbs also designed our current food shopping options. Geographic areas that were outlined in red now have less food options. 

How Do We Address Food Apartheid and Food Deserts?

Addressing such a complex issue takes multiple levels of intervention including: the local and federal governments, education on nutrition, improved healthcare systems, safety net programs, long term sustainable programs such as community gardens created by and for the community, increased farmers markets in lower income communities that accept EBT/Food Stamps, and overall funding for low income communities. 


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