By Jesse DeLauder

Over 13 million Americans live in deserts — food deserts, that is.

Food deserts occur in communities with limited access to affordable fresh and healthy food options. With the passing of World Food Day on October 16th, I think it’s worth discussing what exactly causes these deserted areas, which are unique to our modern time, and what can be done to save them.

Factors that define a food desert include socio-economic makeup of a community, access to transportation and distance to a supermarket. The USDA estimates that about 13.5 million Americans live in food deserts. People in these communities may have access to a convenience store, mini-mart or fast food restaurant, but they lack fresh and nutritious food options, forcing a reliance on processed foods.

Studies have shown that diets lacking fresh fruits and vegetables increase the risk for health diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. With that said, the largest and most controversial health concern is the link between food deserts and obesity.

Considering over a third of American adults are clinically obese and the continued rise in the rate of obesity among children, it’s clear that obesity is truly a national public health epidemic. In the past, studies linking food deserts and high levels of obesity have prompted national efforts to bring better food options into these geographical areas. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has made eliminating food deserts a priority through her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity by providing incentives to chain grocery stores to set up shops in impoverished communities.

On the other hand, more recent studies have found that the link between food deserts and obesity is tenuous, and that poverty is the stronger determining factor in the spread of obesity. In other words, even with access to affordable healthy foods, impoverished communities still have high rates of obesity.

Studies have also found that on a more basic level, Americans prefer fast food to fresh produce. This is not hard to believe considering the new research on how the addiction to unhealthy processed foods (such as fast foods) is comparable to an addiction to drugs. Based on this information, many believe that the solution to our obesity epidemic lies in nutrition education and support groups.

Even if food deserts are not a direct cause of obesity, we do know that food deserts have a strong correlation to food insecurity. Luckily, community organizations and passionate individuals are coming up with innovative ways to combat this issue. Community supported agriculture (CSA) have worked in some communities to bring fresh produce from local farms into areas of food insecurity while simultaneously supporting the local economy. The urban farming movement has also helped urban food deserts like Detroit, where an estimated 1500-2000 urban gardens now exist.

It’s up to future generations to come up with creative ways to prevent the spread of this destructive phenomenon and ensure that these millions of Americans aren’t left deserted.

Check out the USDA’s new food desert locator map:

Learn how to start a community garden: